Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes
The deathblow comes from the muni Wi-Fi efforts. It doesn't matter whether they are viable or not--all they need do is give local connectivity the moral high ground and represent a grass roots effort that the legislature not only can't ignore but can embrace. --Bob Frankston
In ancient telco lingo, "bypass" is anything that works around the phone system itself. Susan Crawford wisely encourages bypassing not only the system but the whole notion of fixing it with "Network Neutrality" agreements or legislation. In response to the questions, "What, if any, version of common carriage rules should govern Internet communications platforms? More specifically, can some concept of Network Neutrality be defined and enforced proactively in the form of prescriptive regulations?", she answers,
I think this is the wrong question. It assumes the limited world of online access providers we've got, makes them into "communications platforms," and then suggests we need to make rules about them. Not very imaginative. I have lost faith in our ability to write about code in words, and I'm confident that any attempt at writing down network neutrality will be so qualified, gutted, eviscerated, and emptied that it will end up being worse than useless. Besides, I'm sure there are very good reasons to manage networks, and writing down the difference between management and incremental control of users' experiences is an impossible task.
The only way around this issue is to avoid it by encouraging the development of alternative online access methods, and being careful not to let the incumbents call them illegal. Let the dinosaurs huddle together in the snow, controlling and commoditizing to their hearts' content. We're made of better stuff. It should be no more illegal to have an open wireless network in your house than to practice the piano with the windows open. And having an open wireless network can lead to a community mesh network and a host of devices that open immediately to others, connecting us to the world.
If that's not possible, then the second best solution is structural separation, paying off the carriers for their stranded costs and moving to open utility platforms. BT seems to think that's a fine idea; why couldn't it work here?
Muni Wi-Fi is a form of bypass. So are other government-sponsored or assisted workarounds.
So are the private ones. If Om Malik and Business 2.0 are sniffing the right trail, that's what we'll get from Google. Here's what Om said on August 25, 2005, in "Free Wi-Fi? Get Ready for GoogleNet":
What if Google wanted to give Wi-Fi access to everyone in America? And what if it had technology capable of targeting advertising to a user's precise location? The gatekeeper of the world's information could become one of the globe's biggest Internet providers and one of its most powerful ad sellers, basically supplanting telecoms in one fell swoop. Sounds crazy, but how might Google go about it?
First it would build a national broadband network--let's call it the GoogleNet--massive enough to rival even the country's biggest Internet service providers. Business 2.0 has learned from telecom insiders that Google is already building such a network, though ostensibly for many reasons. For the past year, it has quietly been shopping for miles and miles of "dark", or unused, fiber-optic cable across the country from wholesalers such as New York's AboveNet. It's also acquiring superfast connections from Cogent Communications and WilTel, among others, between East Coast cities including Atlanta, Miami, and New York. Such large-scale purchases are unprecedented for an Internet company, but Google's timing is impeccable. The rash of telecom bankruptcies has freed up a ton of bargain-priced capacity, which Google needs as it prepares to unleash a flood of new, bandwidth-hungry applications. These offerings could include everything from a digital-video database to on-demand television programming.
One contact in a Position to Know tells me that Google's purpose isn't bypass, but advertising. That's their revenue model, and if you follow the money--as well as the company's development and acquisition vectors--you get to a place where highly targeted advertising pays for everything. Should this be a problem? There are damn few large companies taking the Net's side here. If Google gets to be a major carrier as well as the major search engine and advertising pump it is today, that sure as hell beats the alternatives. Especially when Google is fighting the incumbents on the battlefield we call Congress.
For example, there's an Internet regulation bill working its way through the House of Representatives right now as part of a broad effort to replace the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which pretty much everybody agrees is in woeful need of an upgrade. Naturally, lawmakers and the lobbyists who employ them want more laws, more regulation, more favoritism. So, Brett Glass points out, "like earlier versions, it subjects all ISPs and VoIP providers to intensive Federal regulation and requires them to register before providing service. It also preempts state and local control over rights of way".
Google isn't merely against bills like this, it's opposing them publicly. Vint Cerf, Google's Chief Internet Evangelist, sent an open letter this past Wednesday to the Energy and Commerce Committee, speaking out against this bill and others like it. The key paragraphs:
The remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design. The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. The Internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control. By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation. This has led to an explosion of offerings--from VOIP to 802.11x wi-fi to blogging--that might never have evolved had central control of the network been required by design.
My fear is that, as written, this bill would do great damage to the Internet as we know it. Enshrining a rule that broadly permits network operators to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services and to potentially interfere with others would place broadband operators in control of online activity. Allowing broadband providers to segment their IP offerings and reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for their own services will not give consumers the broadband Internet our country and economy need. Many people will have little or no choice among broadband operators for the foreseeable future, implying that such operators will have the power to exercise a great deal of control over any applications placed on the network.
As we move to a broadband environment and eliminate century-old non- discrimination requirements, a lightweight but enforceable neutrality rule is needed to ensure that the Internet continues to thrive. Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online.
I am confident that we can build a broadband system that allows users to decide what websites they want to see and what applications they want to use--and that also guarantees high quality service and network security. That network model has and can continue to provide economic benefits to innovators and consumers--and to the broadband operators who will reap the rewards for providing access to such a valued network.
We appreciate the efforts in your current draft to create at least a starting point for net neutrality principles. Google looks forward to working with you and your staff to draft a bill that will maintain the revolutionary potential of the broadband Internet.
Significantly, Vint Cerf, often called "The father of the Net", is the prime author of TCP/IP, the core protocol suite that the Net itself employs.
Bills such as this one travel through a pro-market Congress on the strength of "deregulation" claims by carriers, which are made on television as well as in the halls of Congressional office buildings. As Lauren Weinstein reports:
the telephone companies' alliance has again been flooding the airwaves with "unleash the phone companies" advertising. These follow their usual line: We see happy consumers using futuristic communications devices and services and are told that our telecom laws are only slightly more recent than the invention of plumbing. Allow for true market-based competition without all of those inconvenient regulations, the commercials say, and it'll truly be a wonderful world indeed! And there's not a phone bill in sight!
Of course, the carriers are plainly anti-market and have been for the duration. Such is the nature of corporate species that have thrived exclusively in a highly controlled regulatory environment.
Regulatory habitats are by nature anti-market as well, regardless of the pro-market leanings of their top officials. This is why regulatory reform itself is inherently nutty. This point was made expertly last Wednesday by Susan Crawford:
I want to persuade us that all of this talk about convergence over the last few years is not true. Stepping away from interpretation of the 1996 Act itself, it seems to me that telephone services are fundamentally different from the internet, and the notion of carrying particular social policies over from the telephone world to the internet (without taking into account what the internet is) is already proving to be hopelessly wrongheaded, needlessly expensive, and shortsighted.
The question assumes that we need "an effective framework to govern the internet." There's a lot of law that already applies online, and I have not seen a demonstration that more new law is needed--and, in any event, it's not the FCC that is in the best position to do it. If we're going to depart from the central Section 230 notion that the online world is unfettered by special-purpose federal or state laws, that should be a conscious choice. Right now, it's all ad hoc, backwards looking, and unprincipled. And destructive. E911 and CALEA certainly fit this description, and I have a feeling that universal service will too when it erupts from the Commission.
We need a sustained national conversation about all this--maybe we'll end up with this same approach, but I'd like to think not. Why can't we be both more hopeful and emphatic--take the lead, around the world--about the approach to the internet that we want?...
What happened to our leadership on internet policy? When did we lose the ability to walk and slide back into the sea? We experimented and tugged and pulled and came up with the idea of linking machines together with a common language, making it possible for humans to interact in unprecedented ways. Now we're turning those machines back into the machines we thought we were escaping--telephones, cable systems, and televisions--using insiders' language so that we can hide what's going on from the general public. What happened?
Glad you asked, Susan. I have the answer.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal
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