Public Policy 126S

March 31, 2002

 

A former journalist, political scientist Ken Rogerson began publishing scholarly articles on Internet regulation while still a graduate student. Today his seminars attract junior and senior engineering students, computer scientists, sociology majors, cultural anthropologists, and historians, as well as public policy majors. "They're very interested in it," he says, "but it's been challenging for me. When I talk about the technical side, the computer science students are falling asleep; when I get into politics and public policy, the engineers are lost. It's been fun for me to adapt to an interdisciplinary mode."

Part of the solution was to engage the students with one another in small groups. As a class, they start by reading Andrew Shapiro's The Control Revolution and Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, books that set up a basic dialectic that informs the whole semester. "The world contains Internet pessimists and Internet optimists," explains Rogerson, "those who believe that the Internet and accompanying technologies can change the world for the better, and those who believe that the Internet is just going to give those in control more control. When we're talking about privacy, we talk about privacy-optimism and privacy-pessimism, and that makes for a nice basis for the course."

They have discussions on democratic pluralism, political aspects of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (the nonprofit group that parcels out domain names), the basics of policy-making theory. They invite such guest speakers as the technology reporter for MSNBC.com in Seattle, who specializes in covering "hacktivists"--computer hackers with a moral mission; a computer security expert for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who discusses the changing face of security on government websites; and Brian Cantwell-Smith, Duke's Kimberly J. Jenkins University Professor of New Technologies and Society, who talks about the normative dimensions of computing.

Students spend the first half of the term studying domestic issues in the United States--the digital divide, the Internet in campaigns, interest groups, and elections. Online voting isn't yet a burning issue anywhere in the world but here, even though the populations of countries such as Estonia are far more "wired." Then comes Internet regulation, taxation, and free-speech issues--also peculiar to the U.S., Rogerson says, because unlike even our closest European cousins, we treat free speech as an inherent right rather than one that must be created through legislation.

The second half of the class concentrates on international issues, and the room always seems to contain an international student or two to add thoughtful perspective and a dose of non-virtual reality. Here they look into global information infrastructure, Internet governance and history, and, of course, e-commerce. In their final week, they cover computer-based terrorism and cyberwarfare.

Students must write two "policy memos," a research paper on geographical Internet diffusion, a report and presentation on sites they have monitored for hot policy topics such as online gambling and pornography, and a final essay. Much of their effort goes into small-group efforts at creating a merged class website containing links, analysis, and bibliographies about an Internet-related subject. At www.pubpol.duke.edu/centers/dewitt/course/internet/images/internet.htm, for instance, last spring's class explored the broad areas of copyright, privacy, piracy, medicine on the Net, intellectual property flow, voting, and financial fraud.

But if any syllabus focused on the Internet sounds like it must be a moving target or self-destructing artifact, consider that for next semester Rogerson may also assign a book published in 1944, a generation before the invention of the personal computer: economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi's masterwork, The Great Transformation, which chastised the capitalist world for not looking at the negative consequences of an economic model that enslaved government to the dictates of ruthless mercantilism and ignored the very poverty the system generated. "I think I might invite my students to try to apply his concepts to the information revolution," Rogerson says.