Esther Dyson, internet guru
Saturday January 31, 2004
During the dotcom boom Esther Dyson made Allan Leighton, the executive who invented the concept of "going plural" in the number of jobs he held down, look workshy.
In the late 1990s, the woman dubbed by the American media "queen of the internet" sat on the board of half a dozen companies, from advertising group WPP to her own research firm EDventure. She held posts on many industry bodies, including the chairmanship of ICANN, the closest thing the internet has to a government. She also advised presidential hopeful Al Gore as member of his National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council, and his Republican rivals heard her views through the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
Clocking up an estimated 250,000 air miles a year, she was courted by everyone from venture capitalists and boffins desperate to get their start-ups off the ground to industry heavyweights like Bill Gates. To top it all, her Release 1.0 newsletter was required reading for the digerati and anyone who aspired to an understanding of the internet and how it was changing business and society.
Even when the boom turned to bust, the calls kept coming. Everyone - with the possible exception of George W Bush, who never returns her calls - wants a piece of her. The calls, or rather emails, as that is Esther's preferred method of communication, keep coming. "I should not reveal this, but I have one wonderful line if I'm not interested, which is, 'Dear X, I am so sorry but I don't have the time or money to give this the attention it deserves'. It's left to the reader to figure out exactly what that means," she says.
Such comments are typical of Esther, and she smiles impishly as she says it. Imp is quite an apt word, as she is diminutive and looks younger than her 52 years. But anyone taking her small stature for a lack of intellectual presence would be very wrong. Both her parents were eminent mathematicians and she grew up in the academic hothouse of Princeton, New Jersey, before studying economics at Harvard at 16. She speaks fluent Russian and is a frequent visitor to eastern Europe.
One of the reasons Release 1.0 is so popular is that it is insightful and well-written, not full of the management gobbledegook that characterises so much writing about the internet. The medium needs people who can provide clear explanations. After September 11 2001 and the subsequent "war on terror", the American authorities have started seeing the worldwide web as a breeding ground for terrorists, while if the UK media is to be believed, the internet is crawling with paedophiles. Both governments want more power to monitor the web, while authorities in countries such as China and North Korea don't want their people to use it.
"In the fullness of time there is no anonymity," says Esther.
"You can certainly find an internet access point somewhere in an anonymous caf¨¦ and pay with cash and send an anonymous message, but if you happen to be tracked by a security camera or you tell a friend where you were anonymity is not as binary as people think.
"In the end, I do want to be able to trace people with enough effort because there are terrorists, but I want it to be very difficult and I want the police to have to get a warrant to go to someone's house, and they need to show cause to get my name from an internet service provider.
"I am comfortable in a world of shades of grey in both directions, but one thing that I am not going to do is have enlightened governments like those in the US and UK say that anonymity should be completely illegal because the North Koreans will use that as carte blanche to do what they want."
Despite her realistic views on anonymity, Esther seems at heart an idealist, like many leaders of the internet world. Working with one of her numerous thinktanks, she has developed a concept she calls "the accountable net, rather than the regulated net".
"If there is a golden rule for the internet, it is 'do ask, don't lie'. It is not always 'tell'. The individual has the right, and for self-preservation almost the obligation, to find out who they are dealing with. Understand what they are trying to get out of you, why they want to be talking with you. The other person's obligation is not to lie. If they do not want to answer your questions about their identity then they can say they want to remain private, and you have the option of saying 'I do not want to deal with you'. The more transparency, the better. People who are visible behave better."
The debate about how much information should be held on users within the internet infrastructure is raging within the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the non-profit organisation that ensures machines connected to the internet can speak to each other. Pressure is growing for ICANN, which Esther still advises, to be given a regulatory role, something she vehemently opposes.
"ICANN should have as little power as possible, and it certainly should not be setting global standards that governments can then use to go after people. The less power it has, the less likelihood that it is going to taken over and become an arm of control. ICANN should be limited to setting policy for the technical infrastructure."
Esther is preparing to give up her advisory post with ICANN as she cuts down some of her responsibilities. "I am trying to become more focused on a few good things. I am beginning to realise I can do more good for a few people than by spreading myself too thin. I do not want to be melodramatic, but I do not have all the time in the world so I am trying to set priorities on life more explicitly."
There have been many attempts to drag her into politics, and she does admit to being a fan of Democratic nomination hopeful General Wesley Clark - they are both avid swimmers. But though she believes "if you live in the world and you can make things happen, you almost have an obligation to do so" she prefers to concentrate on nurturing companies.
Her latest venture is Midentity, which is somewhere between an online contacts book and Napster, with business cards instead of music. She is a personal investor in the Cambridge-based company. A service is being tested and the company is likely to make a splash later this year.
As with all of the companies in which she has invested, she describes Midentity with the affection people usually reserve for children. But Esther, who has not had children, really gets maternal when she talks about eastern Europe. Her love of all things east European and especially Russian was instilled in her by her father, the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson, who was taught at Cambridge by eminent mathematicians, many of whom came from behind the iron curtain.
Ever since she first went to Russia in 1989, Esther has been fascinated by its sometimes painful transition to a free market economy. She has a very public bet with Bill Campbell, the chairman of software group Intuit, that by 2012 either the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times will have referred to Russia as the world leader in software development.
"I like watching things get better. If I were a maid, I would like dirty rooms. What is the point of coming to a clean room? What can you do with it? Russia is the ultimate dirty room."
Born July 14 1951, Switzerland
Education School in Princeton, New Jersey; year at Loughton County Grammar School, Essex; Harvard, at 16, BA in economics
Career 1972, fact checker, reporter, Forbes magazine; 1977, Wall Street analyst for New Court Securities; joined Rosen Research and bought out the firm in 1983, changing its name to EDventure Holdings; numerous non-executive directorships, including i-Gabriel, WPP and Meetup.com; current or former member of advisory bodies including National Endowment for Democracy, Eurasia Foundation, Technology Empowerment Network, Institute for East West Studies, Global Business Network, Santa Fe Institute, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Markle Foundation; 1998-2000, founding chairman of ICANN, now on its advisory committee; former adviser to Al Gore as member of National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council; also advised Republicans through the Progress and Freedom Foundation
Interests Russian, swimming