The speed and reliability with which goods, services, and ideas can be transferred from one person to another has always been critical to human civilization. Early on, information transfer was completely dependent on the available physical transportation. Orders, government data, and intellectual properties could only be conveyed to distant places by personally carrying them there, and the effective size of any nation was limited by this fact. The printing press made certain kinds of information more readily available (to those who could read, so many learned) and ensured that knowledge would not so easily be lost from one generation to the next. However, printed information still suffered from the restrictions imposed by the limited means of transportation and communication.
The invention of the telegraph and telephone altered this situation profoundly, for now information transfer could be effected anywhere that the wires could be strung. Then emerging countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia benefited the most from such developments, for they were able to weld together enormous territories into single political entities because there were efficient transportation and communication among the parts. First the railways and then the copper wires tied these nations together, and without such technologies it is likely that today they would be (as Europe has been) many small countries divided by language and culture and unable to communicate effectively.
Increasing use of telephone services forced carriers to automate to prevent the system from being stalemated by the number of operators required for manual equipment. Thus came dial phones, automatic switching, and computerized routing. Likewise, inter-city telephone cables gave way to radio, broadband transmission, satellite routing, and fibre optics to keep pace with the ever-increasing traffic. Both radio and image transmission techniques have merged with the telephone to produce cellular phones and a practical facimile system (Fax technology is over a century old, but was little-used by most people until speed and quality improved). More innovations are necessary as the quantity of data transmitted over these circuits continues to grow.
Meanwhile, the entertainment media have also shrunk the effective size of the world, as programs created in one place can be seen around the globe in a matter of minutes. Thus, while the time it takes to physically transport an object to any part of the world has been reduced to hours by modern jets, data can be transmitted instantaneously. It is safe to predict that the efficiency of information transmission will continue to grow for some time yet, and that there may also be further improvements in the speed of air travel.
Faster, cheaper, more powerful computers can store and manipulate more data. They are even more widely interconnected than they were, and it is now possible to send and receive information through this network at any time to any location on the planet on the so-called "information highway".
In the near future, the transportation/communication network will expand much more than it already has into near space. The entertainment industry will depend more heavily on satellite transmission, to the point where the viability of local television stations may become endangered. A small (30 cm or less) dish antenna will be able to pick up hundreds of national and international channels from orbit, and local broadcasts may well become redundant. This trend toward a global information store may be offset in part by an increased interest in the local community, so that there may well be new low-power local stations established as well.
Except for physical transportation, the spread of information is now limited only by the speed of light. At least inside the orbit of the moon, this is effectively no limitation at all, though in the more distant future it may be. If other parts of the solar system are colonized, there would be no instant communication possible, since the time taken by light to travel to other planets is appreciable. Data transfer will still work; as will any other communication that can tolerate waits of several minutes or more. Though it is premature to speculate upon the next stage of societal development, it seems clear that one of the current stage's most important characteristics is the instant and unlimited availability of data and information.
As will be seen in subsequent discussions, this availability in itself raises many important issues for those with an eye to the ethics of the situation and an interest in the quality of life in society.
Profile On . . . Data and the Law
Several countries have passed laws regulating the security and privacy of data. Some also have attempted to regulate transborder data flow as well. Here is a selection:
the Freedom of Information Act (Public sector only) Privacy Act (private sector)
the Federal Access to Information Act and the federal Privacy Act (Public sector only)
the Act on Data Processing, Data Files, and Individual Liberties. (Public and private sectors, transborder data flows)
Privacy Act (Public and private sectors, transborder data flows)
Data Protection Act (Public and private sectors. Transborder data flows can be prohibited)
oPrivacy Act 1974 (information practices, notification procedures for government agencies)
o Fair Credit Reporting Act 1970 (private sector credit, insurance and employment info).
o Fair Credit Billing Act 1974 (privacy in granting credit)
o Freedom of Information Act
o Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act 1974 (information practices of Federally funded educational institutions)
o Right to financial Privacy Act 1978 (limiting government access to financial information to law-enforcement agencies
o Privacy Protection Act 1980 (limiting government seizures of material intended for public communication)
o Cable Communications Policy Act 1984 (privacy of cable television subscribers)
the Federal Data Protection Act (federal public sector)
Source: The International Handbook on Computer Crime