Welcome to CFP96!

Hal Abelson, General Chair

A year ago, CFP95 intoned "We have reached the crossroads of the Information Age." Today, troops converge on those crossroads from all directions.

Dispatch from Marc Rotenberg at the front: This is the morning after in cyberspace.

Since 1991, CFP conferences have promoted shared understandings among settlers on the electronic frontier. But truth be told, it wasn't really so hard in the early days for the farmer and the cowboy to be friends. Today the land rush is on in earnest. Railroad barons and mining conglomerates have wheeled into town, and the citizens back home are taking notice with a vengeance. The old-timers are learning that their old-time cosmic feuds were just neighborly spats.

Stroll down CyberMain Street on this morning after, and you'll meet folks with very different notions about how the place should be run.

"Are American citizens really so neurotically uptight about deviant sexual behavior that we will allow our entire information infrastructure to be dictated by the existence of pedophiles?" quipped Bruce Sterling at CFP in March, 94. Everyone smirked, thinking he was asking rhetorically. Fifteen months and ten million new netizens later, the US Congress answered Bruce's question with the answer we didn't expect.

Laurence Tribe's model Constitutional amendment seemed so inevitably right at the first CFP conference in 1991: "This Constitution's protections for the freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly, ... shall be construed as fully applicable without regard to the technological method or medium through which information content is generated, stored, altered, transmitted, or controlled." Yet in 1996 the President signs into law a bill that bans from the Internet content allowable in books and newspapers.

In the morning-after light, the black and white issues resolve to queasy shades of gray.

Take encryption. It was easy to lambaste the Clipper chip. The scheme was technically awkward and economically unsound. Its trust-us-it's-good-for-you proponents met criticism by talking terrorism rather than technology, and they hadn't been to Woodstock, either. John Perry Barlow was downright inspiring in 1992: "You can have my encryption algorithm when you pry my cold dead fingers from its private key."

But now there are new middle grounds, staked out by people who appreciate both cryptography and economics. Suppose the government doesn't want your keys, but only 24 bits of them, or 20, or 16? Cypherpunks may draw lines in the sand, but the sand is shifting fast.

Take local determination. It was intoxicating to realize that political boundaries are, in Tim May's words, "not even speedbumps on the Information Superhighway." But on this morning after, a Bavarian prosecutor's bark shuts down newsgroups not only in Bavaria, but across the world. And a US Federal Appeals Court rules that community standards of Memphis, Tennessee, apply to cyber-pornographers in Milpitas, California.

On this morning after, we see that the Internet circus tent is larger than we'd ever acknowledged, and there is no center ring.

It's a delusion that CFP issues follow an American agenda. Much of the world is less concerned about government intrusions into privacy - and more concerned about intrusions by employers and corporations - than previous CFP conferences have allowed. Much of the world looks askance at the particular tradeoffs Western civilization makes between personal freedom and civic responsibility, and hardly views these as any sign of ethical superiority.

On this morning after, we understand the urgency of Jim Warren's words at the first CFP conference: "If the fundamental freedoms and personal privacy that are the foundation of any free people are to be protected, it is essential that citizens become informed and actively participate in shaping the impacts and great potential of the Information Age."

The electronic frontier town has become Downtown, and the locals are learning city ways. But it is, after all, still morning.

On behalf of the organizers,

Hal Abelson

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Last updated June 23, 1996