who owns the network? 01.12.2006, 5:15 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Susan Crawford recently floated the idea of the internet network (see comments 1 and 2) as a public trust that, like America's national parks or seashore, requires the protection of the state against the undue influence of private interests.
...it's fine to build special services and make them available online. But broadband access companies that cover the waterfront (literally -- are interfering with our navigation online) should be confronted with the power of the state to protect entry into this self-owned commons, the internet. And the state may not abdicate its duty to take on this battle.
Others argue that a strong government hand will create as many problems as it fixes, and that only true competition between private, municipal and grassroots parties -- across not just broadband, but multiple platforms like wireless mesh networks and satellite -- can guarantee a free net open to corporations and individuals in equal measure.
Discussing this around the table today, Ray raised the important issue of open content: freely available knowledge resources like textbooks, reference works, scholarly journals, media databases and archives. What are the implications of having these resources reside on a network that increasingly is subject to control by phone and cable companies -- companies that would like to transform the net from a many-to-many public square into a few-to-many entertainment distribution system? How open is the content when the network is in danger of becoming distinctly less open?
Martin Terre Blanche on January 13, 2006 10:26 AM:
"...the internet as a public trust that, like America's national parks or seashore, requires the protection of the state against the undue influence of private interests." - Er, last time I looked the internet wasn't American.
ben vershbow on January 13, 2006 11:05 AM:
Your point is well taken, but I don't think it obviates the need for this discussion. True, America can screw up its own local network as much as it wants without necessarily altering the global internet... But looking at what I wrote, I realize that I have to be careful not to elide these terms, network and internet. By "network" I am referring (in this discussion at least) to the physical infrastructure -- the pipes -- on which the internet is built. In America (and likely elsewhere - I still have a lot of reading to do) there is currently a battle being waged for control of those pipes. The outcome of this battle will, in turn, have a great effect on the nature of the internet -- America's and the world's -- because the winner will set the terms for which applications and uses of the network are encouraged and which are discouraged. That winner could be the broadband providers, or it could be the consumers. It could also be the government, although this seems unlikely.
At the beginning of the post I referred to the internet, and I realize this was misleading. I should have said "network." I will change that now, but with a strikethrough, to preserve the progression of the discussion.
Jesse Wilbur on January 13, 2006 11:09 AM:
The Internet is international - I think that's a very good point. It's big enough and distributed enough to protect itself. If governments or businesses in one nation begin to clamp down on it, it will be to the advantage of another government or business in another nation to pick up the demand. While national firewalls like China's can mostly limit access to certain info, it is still permeable.
And mostly, I think, I disagree with the idea that government is a good shield against private interests. Yes, some private interests want to control the speed/usage of the pipe, but that is fair - it's their pipe. Governments want to control the information - see above - and that's not fair. A pro business government legislating the Internet will give us the worst of both worlds.
And really, the Internet is about open access and free-range information.
ben vershbow on January 13, 2006 11:40 AM:
Jesse, I share your concern about top-down government control, but I'm just as concerned about the consequences of laissez-faire. It seems clear that the government needs to regulate more proactively: basic anti-monopoly measures, strong safeguards against providers' discrimination against certain applications or uses (network neutrality), and robust platform competition. As it stands, broadband providers are lobbying for the power they need to quash municipal wi-fi projects and community-based peer networks. Again, I'm focused on the problem here in America because that's where I'm from, but it seems these are global issues. I would love to hear how this is mapping out elsewhere.
Also, I'd like to try to steer this back to the open content question. To what extent is this nascent gift economy threatened by the larger struggle over pipe access?
Eddie A. Tejeda on January 13, 2006 3:56 PM:
I think people are either not considering the importance of content producers or completely under estimate the demand that good content brings. The "network" is not free and we should acknowledge that. But I do not really think that it matters because the true gift is content. See, the pipes that internet flows through belong to a company; a company that decided to get into the business of connecting content producers to content consumers and make money in the meanwhile. But if there was no content or if the content did not create demand because of lack of quality, then they would be out of a job. The pipes that connect the internet get fatter and faster because the content producers and consumers demand it.
If a company does not provide, there is always another company (or technology) that would be willing provide, given they can make money. The pipes themselves belong to companies and since we do not pay a tax to build and share the internet, it's moot to speak about the internet belonging to the "people". It does not. It is not like national parks or even highways, it is more like a taxi. You pay and you get what you need. Every time you go online and download an MP3, you've already paid for your cab ride. But the achilles heel of the pipe providers is that they are always under the threat of being undersold or being completely replaced by newer technology (and this happens often).
The problem here is that the pipes belong to companies that also provide content. They want their content to get priority. This reminds me of the CBS/Viacom case. Viacom started as a division of CBS, and in 1973 Viacom was spun off because of FCC rules forbid content producers to also be broadcasters. (Sadly, they merged back in the 90s). But then cable television changed everything and allowed a plethora of content producers access their cable users. Now, the internet poses the same threat to the same media companies. I think we should keep an eye on these companies, but I ultimately believe that if there a demand for content, the pipes would essentially build themselves.
Here is an interesting discussion i've been following on Dave Farber's Interesting People:
Telco's Arrogant Stand on Content -
bowerbird on January 14, 2006 3:50 AM:
u.s. taxpayers certainly _did_ pay for the internet!
since the very beginning, when it was called arpanet!
of course, since the government is just a tool of
big business, as soon as people could see that it had
"profit potential", they turned it over to their masters.
Eddie A. Tejeda on January 14, 2006 1:25 PM:
Well, the government did *invest* in the internet. The government does not pay the day to day bills or for much of the advancement that can come from building up the internet. Actually, 10 companies own 66.5% of all the backbone pipes.
Don't believe me? Look at this and enjoy the pretty picture:
bowerbird on January 14, 2006 4:17 PM:
yes, and what did "the government"
-- also known as the taxpayers --
get in return for that "investment"?
"privatization" is just a nice word for
the looting of the public treasury...
it's time to use "eminent domain"
to start taking _back_ what is ours
-- stolen by robber-barons using
their lobbyists and their payoffs --
before the corporate ruling class
gets too "comfortable" having it...
Martin Terre Blanche on January 14, 2006 4:24 PM:
When I made my initial comment I didn't understand that the issue was really the network itself. Some of the later comments certainly paint a scary picture of how much of that belongs to a few large companies. This discussion has made me realise how little I know about who owns the networks that the internet and telecoms in general run on, and about what national and international controls are in place.
Abigail Doan on January 15, 2006 12:35 PM:
If we choose to think of the network, the 'information biosphere' along the lines of government-controlled conservation efforts, i.e. government regulated national parks and large companies sponsoring nature documentaries for prime-time, cable-serviced, armchair viewing, we really are in trouble. It looks like we will indeed go the way of Nature Conservancy bumper stickers and hybrid-vehicle ad campaigns during the SuperBowl to take back what rightfully belongs in the public domain or at least makes us feel good about what we have control over or free access to.
We are already too comfortable with the American past-time of 'visiting' and 'experiencing' nature in parks on summer holiday, that is, if we can pay the gas prices to drive around with family in tow. Who's to say that we are not already in an endless cycle of having to seek out and slog through 'profit-potential' wilderness experiences as a means to find good content in nature. We have not really been able to pull this off nationally or internationally on the environmental front, so why should we trust anyone 'manning' the pipe(s) so to speak?
ben vershbow on January 18, 2006 11:03 AM:
Eddie said: I think people are either not considering the importance of content producers or completely under estimate the demand that good content brings. The "network" is not free and we should acknowledge that. But I do not really think that it matters because the true gift is content.
Agreed. But the problem is that a monopoly by the broadband providers (which seems the inevitable outcome of an unregulated industry) will determine what kind of content is in demand. And I'm pretty sure it will be on-demand entertainment. The only difference from Tivo is that it will all exist in a network of users who are furiously communicating with each other -- built-in viral marketing. But those who use the net more creatively -- for political discourse, for small business ventures, for alternative media, for open-source development, for art -- will be edged out, just as they are in the physical marketplace. Already we see Yahoo and Google morphing into entertainment distributors. That's the content most people will be after.
Jesse Wilbur on January 18, 2006 4:17 PM:
I partially agree with you, ben. The 'net as a corporate entertainment distribution network is an inevitable byproduct of our culture, and a potentially dangerous one. But the economics of Long Tail predict that even if alternative media and discourse don't fill the center of 'net, they will exist. And even if the mainstream media fills up the servers of Google and Yahoo! with blockbusters and TV shows, the tyranny of the click means that alternatives are still just a click away. As long as that kind of content is allowed to exist at all, people will find a way to get to it.