The Titanic led to licenses for radio operators. Internet next?


I love articles that make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. (I loved the PBS series “Connections” back in the day; if there’s a single major influence on my preaching and writing, it’s that.) There’s a piece on Ars Technica today that shows how the irresponsible behavior of amateur radio operators during the time of the search and rescue operation following the Titanic’s sinking has lead us to the bizarre anti-competitive world of today’s mobile industry in the U.S.

And it’s worth reading for that alone.

But I was particularly taken with this passage describing what it was like on the radio airwaves in the first couple of decades of the last century:

“One has to admit that some of the antics of these Morse code boys are amusing, at least in retrospect. “Some amateurs deliberately sent false or obscene message, especially to the navy,” Douglas notes. “The temptation to indulge in such practical joking was enhanced by the fact that detection was virtually impossible. Amateurs would pretend to be military officials or commercial operators, and they dispatched ships on all sorts of fabricated missions.”

The navy didn’t think any of this was funny, of course. During one cited emergency, naval officials complained that they had to fight with amateurs to get control of a frequency. When a coastal operator told a Boston ham to “butt out” of the signal, he was told to get lost right back.

“Say, you navy people think you own the ether,” the amateur retorted. “Who ever heard of the navy anyway. Beat it, you, beat it.”

As radio historian Jesse Walker observes, the government also resented these boys because they were better trained and had superior equipment. “The hams’ anarchic meritocracy outperformed the navy’s society of status,” Walker writes, “sometimes relaying rescue messages that the official radiomen had missed or mangled. This didn’t exactly boost the seamen’s self-image.””

More here.

Sound like Lulz or Anonymous? Does to me.

When I was in 7th grade I got my novice ham radio license. I didn’t really do much with it because I couldn’t afford a transceiver. I did have a receiver and I’d practice my code skills listening in on traffic. What I really liked though was listening to the news from other countries. I was fascinated by the different spin the BBC, VOA, Radio Moscow, etc, would put on different events. I suppose I still do that today though I use the Internet for my fix.

That’s part of the problem with amateur radio these days too. Most of the people who would have been part of the hobby are now online and have little interest in learning morse code or electronics. They’d rather use email or hang out on web forums.

I’m taken though with the parallels between the early radio scene and the present Internet. Both promise an illusion of anonymity and both therefore seem to allow people a chance to play out irresponsible behavior in a way that think they don’t have to be responsible for in the end.

The problem though is that both situations are ultimately not anonymous. With radio there’s such a thing as a directional antenna, and with three of them it’s a pretty straightforward exercise to find the transmitting antenna. Then you just need to follow the cord to find the operator.

The Internet is also not actually anonymous – at least not the way we think of it as being. Every computer is assigned a unique identifier when it connects to the network. It’s possible to camouflage yourself, but if someone really really wants to find you, they can. You’re not nearly as anonymous as you think you are. If you do something egregiously bad, you’re pretty likely to be discovered eventually.

The government solved the radio problem with licenses. It worked at the time though these days its becoming more and more of a mess. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if some sort of regulatory solution isn’t soon proposed for Internet usage. Especially in these days when major corporations (the really important individuals in America these days at least politically speaking) are getting black eyes left and right as pranksters and amateur operators hack into their systems and repeatedly embarrass them.

And given how well copyright has worked out for individuals and for encouraging artistic expression of late, I expect the solutions proposed for Internet use will be about as useful.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. bob Stedelin says

    WA7GME here but I don’t think the internet will be having the same rules as ham radio there is just to many people the number assigned when you go on line can hang you if you do bad things. Maybe a static IP address would be the thing, but are there that many numbers in the universe. Maybe it will be like the chicken band , er citizen band radio lots of regulations but no enforcement unless you really do really bad things.

  2. I think you’re right that it won’t be the same as ham regulations, but I suspect there’s going to be more policing of Internet behavior. Though, there are interesting and important first amendment rights that are in play here in a way that were taken less seriously in the ham regulatory moment.

    I think it will probably come down to requiring all ISP’s to retain logs of every IP and MAC network card address – perhaps even requiring that routers do that for wifi access points.

    That will be easier with IPv6 – no more NAT’ing to share scarce IP numbers. Everyone and everything will have its own unique code.

  3. anne wolf says

    I remember listening to music on that old radio, too, amid a mass of science equipment! Must be a y-chromosome thing – Ben’s room is totally filled with electronic equipment of one variety or another, his mostly to record rather than transmit sound.

  4. I think Connections is still one of the best examples of using television as the medium it was meant to be.

    Of course, for the scenario you suggest to really play out analogously, there would have to be some kind of iceberg.

  5. Martin says

    Connections, the Day the Universe Changed, etc were just amazing, and I’ve only known a handful of people who seem to remember them. I’m glad to hear of another friend who was/is influenced and impressed by James Burke’s unpacking of this arcane scientific minutiae. What I take from it is that there is hope for us that the little bit of good we might do in the world might translate into a much better world somewhere down the line, even if our actions don’t bear immediate fruit.

    As to the “illusion of anonymity” and all the rest, doesn’t technology usually find ways to address its own shortcomings more quickly than top-down solutions can be implemented? It seems to me that many complex systems work this way, so I wonder if our efforts might be better spent elsewhere . . .

  6. Martin, thanks for comment. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing in favor of regulations at all. I think we’ve discovered how bad the unintended consequences of a regulatory solution can be in the radio world. I’m worried though that congress won’t have many other arrows in their collective quivers to try to hit the mark on this issue in our day. Top-down is what Congress sort of has to do by default I think.

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