Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes

We're hearing tales of two scenarios--one pessimistic, one optimistic--for the future of the Net. If the paranoids are right, the Net's toast. If they're not, it will be because we fought to save it, perhaps in a new way we haven't talked about before. Davids, meet your Goliaths.

This is a long essay. There is, however, no limit to how long I could have made it. The subjects covered here are no less enormous than the Net and its future. Even optimists agree that the Net's future as a free and open environment for business and culture is facing many threats. We can't begin to cover them all or cover all the ways we can fight them. I believe, however, that there is one sure way to fight all of these threats at once, and without doing it the bad guys will win. That's what this essay is about.

Here's a brief outline of the article. If you want to go straight to the solution, skip to the third section:

  • Scenario I: The Carriers Win

  • Scenario II: The Public Workaround

  • Scenario III: Fight with Words and Not Just Deeds

Scenario I: The Carriers Win

Be afraid. Be very afraid. --Kevin Werbach.

Are you ready to see the Net privatized from the bottom to the top? Are you ready to see the Net's free and open marketplace sucked into a pit of pipes built and fitted by the phone and cable companies and run according to rules lobbied by the carrier and content industries?

Do you believe a free and open market should be "Your choice of walled garden" or "Your choice of silo"? That's what the big carrier and content companies believe. That's why they're getting ready to fence off the frontiers.

And we're not stopping it.

With the purchase and re-animation of AT&T's remains, the collection of former Baby Bells called SBC will become the largest communications company in the US--the new Ma Bell. Verizon, comprised of the old GTE plus MCI and the Baby Bells SBC didn't grab, is the new Pa Bell. That's one side of the battlefield, called The Regulatory Environment. Across the battlefield from Ma and Pa Bell are the cable and entertainment giants: Comcast, Cox, TimeWarner and so on. Covering the battle are the business and tech media, which love a good fight.

The problem is that all of these battling companies--plus the regulators--hate the Net.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. The thing is, they're hostile to it, because they don't get it. Worse, they only get it in one very literal way. See, to the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn't a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes. Their goal is to beat the other pipe-owners. To do that, they want to sell access and charge for traffic.

There's nothing wrong with being in the bandwidth business, of course. But some of these big boys want to go farther with it. They don't see themselves as a public utility selling a pure base-level service, such as water or electricity (which is what they are, by the way, in respect to the Net). They see themselves as a source of many additional value-adds, inside the pipes. They see opportunities to sell solutions to industries that rely on the Net--especially their natural partner, the content industry.

They see a problem with freeloaders. On the tall end of the power curve, those 'loaders are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large sources of the container cargo we call "content". Out on the long tail, the freeloaders are you and me. The big 'loaders have been getting a free ride for too long and are going to need to pay. The Information Highway isn't the freaking interstate. It's a system of private roads that needs to start charging tolls. As for the small 'loaders, it hardly matters that they're a boundless source of invention, innovation, vitality and new business. To the carriers, we're all still just "consumers". And we always will be.

"Piracy" is a bigger issue to the cargo sources than to the carriers. To the carriers, "fighting piracy" is a service offering as well as a lever on regulators to give carriers more control of the pipes. "You want us to help you fight piracy?", the transport companies say to the content companies. "Okay, let's deal." And everybody else's freedoms--to invent, to innovate, to do business, to take advantage of free markets and to make free culture--get dealt away.

The carriers have been lobbying Congress for control of the Net since Bush the Elder was in office. Once they get what they want, they'll put up the toll booths, the truck scales, the customs checkpoints--all in a fresh new regulatory environment that formalizes the container cargo business we call packet transport. This new environment will be built to benefit the carriers and nobody else. The "consumers"? Oh ya, sure: they'll benefit too, by having "access" to all the good things that carriers ship them from content providers. Is there anything else? No.

Crocodile grins began to grow on the faces of carriers as soon as it became clear that everything we call "media" eventually would flow through their pipes. All that stuff we used to call TV, radio, newspapers and magazines will just be "content" moving through the transport layer of the pipe system they own and control. Think it's a cool thing that TV channels are going away? So do the carriers. The future à lá carte business of media will depend on one medium alone: the Net. And the Net is going to be theirs.

The Net's genie, which granted all those e-commerce wishes over the past ten years, won't just get shoved back in the bottle. No, that genie will be piped and priced by the packet. The owners of those pipes have a duty to their stockholders to make the most of the privileged position they've been waiting to claim ever since they got blind-sided, back in the 80s and 90s. (For an excellent history of how the European PTTs got snookered by the Net and the Web, see Paul F. Kunz' Bringing the World Wide Web to America.) They have assets to leverage, dammit, and now they can.

Does it matter that countless markets flourish in the wide spaces opened by agreements and protocols that thrive at the grace of carriage? Or that those markets are threatened by new limits, protections and costs imposed at the pipe level?


Thus, the Era of Net Facilitation will end. The choke points are in the pipes, the permission is coming from the lawmakers and regulators, and the choking will be done. No more free rides, folks. Time to pay. It's called creating scarcity and charging for it. The Information Age may be here, but the Industrial Age is hardly over. In fact, there is no sign it will ever end.

The carriers are going to lobby for the laws and regulations they need, and they're going to do the deals they need to do. The new system will be theirs, not ours. The NEA principle--Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, Anybody can improve it--so familiar to the Free Software and Open Source communities will prove to be a temporary ideal, a geek conceit. Code is not Law. Culture is not Free. From the Big Boys' perspective, code and culture are stuff nobody cares about.

That's us: Nobody.

The new carrier-based Net will work in the same asymmetrical few-to-many, top-down pyramidal way made familiar by TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other Industrial Age media now being sucked into Information Age pipes. Movement still will go from producers to consumers, just like it always did. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Literally.

The deals that matter will be done between tops of pyramids. Hey, it's easier to do business with the concentrated few than the dispersed many. The Long Tail can whip itself into a frenzy, but all the tech magazines and blogs in the world are no match for the tails and teeth of these old sharks. (Hey, Long Tailer, when's the last time you treated your erected representatives to private movie screenings, drafted their legislation, ghosted their committee reports, made a blockbuster movie or rolled fiber across oceans?)

Google and Yahoo and Amazon and eBay and e-commerce and free software and open source and blogging and podcasting and all the rest of that idealistic junk have had their decade in the sun. Hell, throw in Apple and Microsoft, too. Who cares? Them? Doesn't matter how big they are. They don't matter. They're late to the game.

We all know the content business got clobbered by this peer-to-peer crap. But the carriers took a bath by building out the Net's piped infrastructure. They sank $billions by the dozen into fiber and copper and routers and trunks, waiting for the day when they'd be in a position to control the new beast fleshed on the skeleton that they built.

That Day Has Come.

It came earlier this month, when the November 7, 2005, issue of BusinessWeek hit the Web's streets. In that issue are "Rewired and Ready for Combat" and "At SBC, It's All About 'Scale and Scope'", which features an interview with Edward Whiteacre, CEO of SBC. Here's the gist of it:

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

What's your approach to regulation? Explain, for example, the difference between you and Verizon in how you are approaching regulatory approval for Telco TV [digital-TV service offered by telecoms].

The cable companies have an agreement with the cities: They pay a percentage of their revenue for a franchise right to broadcast TV. We have a franchise in every city we operate in based on providing telephone service.

Now, all of a sudden, without any additional payment, the cable companies are putting telephone communication down their pipes and we're putting TV signals. If you want us to get a franchise agreement for TV, then let's make the cable companies get a franchise for telephony.

If cable can put telephone down their existing franchise I should be able to put TV down my franchise. It's kind of a "what's fair is fair" deal. I think it's just common sense.

What if the regulators don't agree?

Then there won't be any competition--there will be a cable-TV monopoly.

I know you're a competitive person. Who are your biggest competitors?

Our big competition in the future is with the cable companies. Verizon's going to be a player, and certainly I want to compete. And I want our shareowners to do better than anyone else.

If I were BusinessWeek, I'd ask:

What about the free and open marketplace that has grown on the Net itself? Do you have any interest in continuing to support that? Or in lobbying forms of deregulation that foster it? Or are you just in a holy war with the cable companies inside the same old regulatory environment you've known since forever?

I'd ask:

If you were to buy, say, Level 3, would you start to filter and restrict content at the transport level, to extract the profits you want, without regard for other market consequences? Would Cisco, builder of the great Firewall of China, help out?

I'd ask:

Which do you prefer: The regulatory environment where your business has adapted itself for more than a century, or a completely free and open marketplace like the rest of us enjoy sitting on top of your pipes?

Whiteacre's answers, of course, would be less relevant than the obvious vector of his company's intentions. For a summary of that, let's return to Lauren Weinstein of People for Internet Responsibility:

Of course, the truth of the matter is that the telcos have been moving rapidly through massive consolidation--and a range of other tactics--to create an environment where "competition" will only be a pale reflection of what we were originally promised, with only a few gigantic players in control of all telecom resources and policies. Like the robot cop in Terminator 2 that reformed from blown-apart mercurial blobs of metal, the "golden age" of telecom competition is already giving way to empire.

Don't blame BusinessWeek for not asking the important questions or for missing the Carriers vs. Net story. Biz pubs love to cover vendor sports. And there's certainly a big story here.

Great distraction, vendor sports. While we're busy watching phone and cable giants fight over a closed battlefield that ought to be open, we miss Net-hostile moves by other parties that result in other lost freedoms.

Take ICANN, for instance, where a new .com Registry Agreement allows Verisign to raise the rates for .com names by 7% annually, and to operate .com in perpetuity, and to "mak[e] commercial use of, or collect, traffic data regarding domain names or non-existent domain names", and to reap other rewards for what few other than Verisign would agree is a good job. Bret Faucett summarizes the darkest shadow across the noir scenario we've already described:

The theme running through all of these is that ICANN and Verisign are treating the .COM registry as a private resource. It's not. The root servers and TLD servers are public resources. We should treat them like that.

Bret has one of the most eloquent voices in the wilderness of clues the Big Boys would rather avoid. So does Susan Crawford, who was just, perhaps miraculously, named to the ICANN board.

For Bret, Susan and the rest of the restless natives of this new world, what matters most is Saving the Net--keeping it a free and open marketplace for everybody--while also making sure that carriers of all kinds can compete and succeed while providing much of the infrastructure on which that marketplace resides. That means we need to understand the Net as more than a bunch of pipes and business on the Net as more than transporting and selling "content".

This isn't a trivial issue. It's a matter of life and death for the Net itself. How are we going to fight?

Read on.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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The problem is regulation, not privatization

Punchey's picture

The reason we're even having this problem is because of governemnt regulation. We have government-created monopolies with companies such as SBC. That gives them a legal stranglehold on what can be done in terms of networks. Indeed, it means that others who might want to string lines of their own suddenly find themselves at odds with the law!

TRUE privatization would see the opening of the doors to firms wanting to string their own cable, set up their own networks, etc.

No, the internet is not a place. No, it is not a commons. No, it can never be "free" (of charge, that is) any more than plane tickets can be free. Internets don't grow on trees, people have to make them and maintain them. The internet is an emergent phenomenon. It is made up of physical property, such as wires, routers, servers, etc. As such, government has no right to control the manner of use of each individual's private property. There is no such power enumerated in the Constitution that is granted to Congress.

Likewise, that means carriers can restrict content on their networks all they want. Their pipes are their property, plain 'n' simple. But you know what? The second they cut access to things like free peer-to-peer VoIP, you'll see third-party carriers start up to provide what the market demands.

The solution lies in TRULY free markets and TRUE privatization. Get the government out of the internet, out of business, and out of our lives.

Read the Staff discussion draft - interesting reading

David's picture

House - Staff Discussion Draft of Broadband Legislation- 70 page pdf -

Is Admiralty Law the solution?

Steve Savitzky's picture

Oddly enough there's already an established body of law that comes pretty close to fitting the place-that-touches-everyplace-else nature of the internet: the law of the sea. It's all about keeping the sea open for commerce and safe for travelers, and it has a huge and tempting advantage in the linguistic battle: it lets us redefine "piracy" to our advantage.

A computer on the net is a lot like a ship at sea -- its OS is its captain, its cargo is its data, and its crew are the various applications hired on for the voyage. They all work for the owner. If someone else (Sony, for example) boards my computer and steals my data, that's piracy!

There's a related crime, barratry, which occurs when the captain or crew misappropriate the vessel or its cargo for personal gain. So when Sony hijacks my computer, that's piracy. When Microsoft does it, that's barratry.

Prove some assumptions?

Bryan's picture

OK, this whole manifesto weebles and wobbles around, often into places I seem unable to go. In other words: I didn't understand large chunks of it! So I went back and read it again, looking for the base assumptions on which the rest of the argument teeters. Here's what I got:

1: Exactly how are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large net presences 'freeloaders' in the eyes of the major bandwidth carriers? Doc leaped to this conclusion with bothering to tell us the secret of the jump. Far as I can tell, these freeloaders pay for their bandwidth, same as I do. So please explain how the Aweful Carriers think they are freeloaders?

2: Several paragraphs evoking the message finally summed up as: "No more free rides, folks. Time to pay." But I pay *now*. So could someone please help me understand the sinister horribleness of how the Aweful Carriers are planning to make my payments higher, or sell me into bondage, or whatever?

3: "Movement still will go from producers to consumers." Except anyone who wants to be is a producer *now*. As Doc's multiple websites prove. Or is some Aweful Carrier threatening to kick Docs websites (or mine!) off the 'net?

If someone could answer these questions I would be much obliged.


1: Exactly how are AOL,

GDF's picture

Bryan writes:

1: Exactly how are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large net presences 'freeloaders' in the eyes of the major bandwidth carriers? Doc leaped to this conclusion with bothering to tell us the secret of the jump. Far as I can tell, these freeloaders pay for their bandwidth, same as I do. So please explain how the Aweful Carriers think they are freeloaders?

2: Several paragraphs evoking the message finally summed up as: "No more free rides, folks. Time to pay." But I pay *now*. So could someone please help me understand the sinister horribleness of how the Aweful Carriers are planning to make my payments higher, or sell me into bondage, or whatever?

To understand this reasoning you have to think like a carrier. One line of thought goes, "there's commerce moving over my pipes and I don't get a cut." That's the simplest argument, and all the claims of "but I/they/someone paid for the bandwidth" are irrelevant. You paid for connectivity, not content. I'm not justifying this argument, just restating it as a carrier would. In general (IMHO) telecommunications law has PREVENTED carriers from content-based charging schemes. No doubt they'd like to see the restrictions lifted.

Another line of thought is, "I'm big enough that I have end-to-end control over THIS content delivered to THAT consumer. Competition is no longer an issue, so I can raise prices." That's ECON 101, dude. Again I am not supporting the argument, just stating it in a way that even a full-blown libertarian should be able to comprehend.

I will cut right to the heart of Doc's thesis and claim that no other innovative technology (all the way back to printing presses) has ever resisted capital-and-market forces forever. There's no particular reason the Internet should be exempt from laws of economics that are nearly as invincible as laws of physics.

I love this

Anonymous's picture

I love this page:



Bryan's picture

As I and others have noted elsewhere on this page, all wishing the telcos might do (either independently or as a group) is just that ... futile wishing. The economics do not work, since there will always be another carrier coming out of the woodwork to undercut those who would try to monopolize the net or peices of it.

Occasionally some boob like Whiteacre will make an ill-considered comment. Such statements evaluate to "if wishes were fishes we would all cast nets". As already shown when Worldcom/uunet tried to corner the net a decade ago, and in your printing press example.

Top execs like Whiteacre aren't exactly brain-dead, no matter how much fun it is to villainize them. They may make stupid statements once in awhile, but they do understand the basic forces at work here. If not, no worries, capitalism and the courts will teach them the lesson. The Cluetrain will roll right over them.

And that's what makes this whole thing so funny! Doesn't Doc beleive in his earlier manifesto?


notmyopinion's picture

> 1: Exactly how are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large net presences 'freeloaders' in the eyes of the major bandwidth carriers?

You're right that it wasn't clearly explained. Maybe the complaint is that Google, MS, Yahoo et al pay their immediate ISP, but they don't pay all "intermediate" ISPs between them and all of their customers? Could be that the complaint is against the current peering / transit arrangements? Could be they would like to charge "per bit" tariffs, varied by protocol and Quality of Service, at the boundary to their network?

Just possibly the complaint is spurious, but designed to give weight to some other agenda (like cable franchise fees or telco regulation).

Or I could have missed a nugget of meaning in the paragraphs of text.


Free bandwidth

Gary Stewart's picture

1. Doc did not leap to this conclusion, the CEO of SBC Edward Whiteacre did. I was more than a little annoyed that Doc did not challange this assumption for as you say bandwidth is NOT free any more than telephone service or cable service is free. We already pay for your pipes so what is your problem Mr. Whiteacre?

2. See above.

3. After taking "ownership" of the net, if they believe they have free reign to regulate content, and your content is something they don't like for whatever reason, they could indeed take you off the net. After all it will be "their net" and they won't have to let you on "their net".


Bryan's picture

RE #'s 1 & 2:

Whiteacre said "what they would like to do is use my pipes free" which is, as you say, a strange assumption since 'they' (Google, Yahoo, etc) pay for bandwidth now; just as users pay again for that bandwidth in order to receive the content.

So this whole article is essentially based on one CEO's {probably misguided & erroneous} attempt to read the minds of a few other CEO's? What a shamefully wobbly base for the whole rap.

RE #3:

Assuming we ever get to #3 (I don't), this is again ludicrous. We're talking about businesses whose primary purpose is to transfer your money into the pockets of their shareholders. Someone will always exist to take your money and host your (or Doc's, or my) website - that's just too much money to leave on the table.

They are using *his* pipes

Anonymous's picture

They are using *his* pipes for free. Yahoo, Google, MSN etc, probably do NOT pay SBC, Comcast and other ISPs for use of *their* pipes. They pay Time Warner, or other larger ISPs.

Sure, the roads all connect, but everyone wants to build their own toll road at the important juncture. While we pay for our cable or DSL, we are not paying our cable or DSL provider for the free VOIP that we use ON TOP OF it. AOL is not paying our cable provider to let use connect to their services. Whiteacre wants US and our CONTENT PROVIDER to pay them the toll to use their pipes.

If we don't like it, then they (insert telco here) simply filter out the freeloader (Skype, Google, etc), and the majority of their subscribers will use the alternative that they (insert telco here) provides for a fee. Don't like it? Well too bad, who else offers "pipes" in your area? I don't know of anyone... Muhahahahahaha...

"While we pay for our cable

ken anthony's picture

"While we pay for our cable or DSL, we are not paying our cable or DSL provider for the free VOIP that we use ON TOP OF it."

Two points 1) Yes, we are paying. We pay for connectivity to a provider. The provider pays for connectity to the inet. 2) VOIP is data... everything is data... it makes no sense to distinguish the data's use. Ok, more points. 3) Payment for bandwith is a business decision. Everybody negotiates there own deal. 4) If I connect to you, you also connect to me. This is why it makes sense for many connections to be free. If I connect to two distinct geographic areas, I am the backbone.

His pipes

Gary Stewart's picture

So (insert any ISP you want here) pays for their connections to "his" pipes and Google, etc. pays (insert any ISP you want here) for their connection to the ISP that connects to "his" pipes. No matter how you word it, EVERYBODY pays for the connections to "his" pipes. They are not free to anybody. Never have been.

Information Service

Chris Laprise's picture

Number 3 is especially true since ISPs have been reclassified as "Information Services" instead of just carriers. So they become increasingly responsible for what others publish over their pipes. It could be a perfect excuse to push their content and services at you while squelching everyone else.

Gotta limit those liabilities.

Very naive

pb's picture

This is very naive. Google has been granted a monopoly on Wi-Fi access in Mountain View, and is bidding for muncipal monopolies all over the country. eBay owns Skype. These guys are our saviours? Oh, please!

Vertical integration is happening all over the place because the net is a lousy vehicle for delivering copyrighted content. You can kid yourselves that the world really wants, say, Doc Searls weblog and amateur podcasts when what it really wants is NFL and The Sopranos -material only big media can deliver because it's expensive to acquire and make.

Unless the net guys figures out a way of delivering it, the future of the internet is a kinda interactive cable TV channel. Don't even ask me about spam, splogs, trojans, and worms - all inevitable results of an end-to-end public network.

Networks are just pipes. Why not let the market decide?


Chris Laprise's picture

"Networks are just pipes. Why not let the market decide?"

People are more than just consumers, and money cannot be the only decision-making tool that matters. Why not try to persuade voters to keep market excesses in check?

> Let the market decide?

Anonymous's picture

Net: Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

Like the Telco Market which had to be broken up before? Or better, how about the Oil Market? Just what we need: Information Barrons! Freedom of the press will indeed be only free to those who own the "press".

The 50-60's anti-communism propaganda worked all too well --to this day anything econaomically communial is held suspect. On the whole people are ignorant b/c the rich and powerful work to keep them that way. It's a sad world. What irony it is then that most our world is actually being run by Corporate Communists --the worst of both systems.

The Net, an unhindered gateway of communication, offers unprecedent glimmer of hope to finally change things. But History should have us fear the worst. It is more likely the masses will loose their voice once again --and perhaps this time it will be for good, as the lowly man transfigures once and for all into mere Cog and Wheel.

Wise up

pb's picture

Yes I agree, the world is run by corporate communists. But we'll get the net we either want or deserve.

"as the lowly man transfigures once and for all into mere Cog and Wheel"

You mean that we're powerless without our computers? You should learn a little history yourself. It's amazing what people actually accomplished - universal sufferage, the abolition of slavery - without them.

Perhaps you need to spend less time at your screen, instead of insulting the great reformers and social movements

Why The Carries Won't Win

Rik's picture

First, I too am an amateur... Not even American, at that. Second: I don't think CarrierNet (for want of a better term) will be with us in the long run, regardless of regulations. Why? Answer: the participatory panopticon. It's Jamais Cascio's words for a world where always-camera's are combined with wifi and mobile communications. At present we use camphones to watch Big Brother, but it won't stay that way. They're clumsy: if there's a moment you want to snap, you can't take out your mobile and say: can you repeat that? Better are camera's that are always with you, allowing you - essentially & here's the rub - to play back your memory. It might be a world of perfect memory, it might not. But you get the idea. Now, nobody in his right mind wants people to pay for their memories. Memory should be free. It's all well and good that all of us will be able to watch everyone else, but paying for memories I find the ultimate nightmare.
If you want to change people's attitudes, I think you have to stress what will come and what we might be able to do with it. Do not get stuck in pessimism (I, as a Dutchman, find it unAmerican). The *place* where memories lie, should remain free.

A process of enclosure.

Chris Laprise's picture

I'm not sure that emphasizing the language of place is going to help. After all, that is what our new "endless war" against terrorism seems to be based on. Metaphors concerning the protection of place (rather than pipes/property) can also be made to work for any set of mandarins.

Whenever entrenched interests are threatened in this Anglo-capitalist system, the response is to describe the dynamics using the methods and language of enclosure and to get people thinking along those lines. It usually works: This is how the "land of the free" wound up in certain places with "zero-tolerance" laws that land people in jail for years for repeat of petty theft.

Does not the language of place further facilitate enclosure?

Or does it throw the situation into sharp relief?

How about relying on a framework and vocabulary that evoke a balance between personal freedom and social responsibility? Would that be too European for Lakoff's admirers?

Changing the language

Bernardo Beate's picture

Changing the language changes the way people perceive a topic. A shy, reserved, and thoughtful person can be just as easily described as cold, calculating, and antisocial. As long as the telecom companies use the language that best suits their needs, we who view the internet as shy (and not antisocial) will suffer because our needs will not be taken into account.

Enclosure will only happen if a new connotation is imposed on the words used. This imposition would come from those who would suffer from an open and free internet. So pre-emtively, telecom companies could begin associating "free internet" with "zero marketability." Even though there is no logical connection, the damage would be done.

If nothing else, this very point about fighting with words, not just deeds should fly out to every reach of the internet as quikly and efficiently as possible to give the pro-internet groups the linguistic advantage.

Change to what?

Chris's picture

I agree with you in general, however the direction the language is going to go in will be very important... and citing Lakoff, I have doubts that the author would take us in a positive direction. Lakoff thinks that liberals have lost important languaage skills, when the problem is that anyone who consistently diverges from the corporate conceptual framework gets kicked on the nuts by the mouthpiece (mass media). The very campaign Lakoff ran for Howard Dean is strong evidence of that.

For what other reason would media outlets first announce that media outlets (the same) are in a "love affair" with a popular movement? It simultaneously adds drama while giving them the credibility of a supposedly intimate association; all the better to tear someone to shreds. That is the essential instinct at work here: First they co-opt something by announcing it is the beneficiary of their institutional affection... then if they can't use it, they emote a huge "YUCK" at the public and portray it as something to be discarded and ridiculed. All that needs to take place for this cycle to complete is for boardrooms and shareholders to express that neither profit nor power can be gained from said movement. Keep reading the WSJ editorial page for previews of next month's exciting episode.

Or put simply, you will be vigorously derided as "not mainstream" or a loony if you do not agree to conglomerate terms of conversation.

This is what happens when "nobodys" start to rally around a cause or a champion. How do we succeed in such an environment? Do we keep blogging at each other and writing Congress? I suppose that is a start. Shall we hone our use of language? Certainly, but the article contains a link to a 2002 Lessig speech where at one point he mentions a certain desire for the FSF to take more 'mainstream' positions. Although I don't agree with the sentiment, I think that includes language don't you?

Ultimately we will have to face the fact that our society's broadcast media have been taken over entirely by commercial interest for some time; It just seems worse now because ownership has shifted to conglomerates. The solution may lie in turning portions (say 1/3) of our internet and broadcast infrastructure over to the public sector.

And by 'public sector' I do not mean the government-and-advertiser-controlled figleaf called PBS. I think that municipal IP networks along with some regional public corporations modeled after the BBC would complement each other tremendously. Adding a truly contrasting business model to the mix is also the surest way to get our media out from under the thumb of commercial conglomerates and bring balance to our news culture.

However, getting Americans to consider municipal nets and license fees would be no easy task so I believe we would only see this sort of new competing infrastructure as part of a wider change in our culture.

Corporations like their cake and want to eat the whole thing...

Jay's picture

Honestly, I think it's a great idea to put a human perspective back to the net. Businesses, all to often, de-humanize social technology for their own benefits. By making the net out to be less of a human social system, and more of a vehicular delivery system, they can justify to their stockholders, theirselves (so they can sleep), and their pets, that making the net one great big toll is a good idea. Personally, I'm tired of paying top-dollar for less than satisfactory services. As another commenter pointed out their dislike that everything in the US seems to have a price tag, and usually it's a premium price. I'm also tired of it as well.

Luckily, with the net, we are able to spread news of malicious intent to the millions out there. Unfortunatly, many more people feel the net to be too complicated, and some of those people are more likely to be in a place to do something more than gripe about it.

Transport slip up

Mat Balez's picture

Doc, in writing

"We need to stress the fact that the primary "end" in the Net's end-to-end architecture is the individual."

you (unwittingly?) re-inforce the Net-as-transport metaphor. Specifically, an "end-to-end architecture" immediate conjures - in my mind at least - the image of a transportation network: something going in one end and out the other, even if at each of those ends is an individual. Those individuals should be seen instead as residing _on_ the Net, and not so much as an "end", as you put it.

Just a small bone to pick, in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking piece that I hope is embraced by the community.

People, not place

David's picture

"Those individuals should be seen instead as residing _on_ the Net, and not so much as an 'end'"

Better still, those individuals should be seen as _being_ the Net. Once we start to view the Net in terms of an extension of global society, as a subset of the world's social interactions, it becomes transparently clear that for someone to choose to interfere with and to limit the interactions - the conversations and transactions - that I wish to have with a third party is an unacceptable infringement of my liberties, just as it would be for my phone line supplier to presume to tell me what I can and can't say over that line.

Unfortunately, the project is hobbled from the very start - the terms Web and Net themselves give primacy to the connections. Sure we have places - 'sites' and 'domains' - but these are the insignificant nodes where the strands of the web meet. To effectively change the way the language frames the way we talk about this thing, we somehow need to change the name of the thing itself.

Tilting at Windmills

Tom F's picture

Yet Another Supercilious Manifesto.

Why treat all private network operators as "public utilities"?

Anonymous's picture


I don't get it: a private company invests money in wires and routers to move packets from my private network to somebody else's private network, and you call that a "public utility"? Where did the "public" come into this?

If somebody else invests in a wireless network and offers to move my packets cheaper and faster, now he's running a new "public utility" and we need to regulate him too?

If both those guys are blocking too many ports for my liking and I decide to raise some capital and create my own network of wires and routers, now I'm running a new "public utility" and you get to form some committee or write some law and tell me how exactly I'm supposed to route packets?

Are we going to need packet police to start sniffing all the private networks to make sure they're routing packets according to all the new federal regulations we'll need? Why don't we just let private people and private businesses sort this out in the free marketplace?

"Free Market Place"

roly's picture

There is no such thing as a free market place and never has been.

Shaved trees = public utility

bill's picture

The 30 foot tall pole in my front yard makes it a public utility. If it's a private company sticking shaved trees in my yard to run their telephone/electric/television cables I'm going home and firing up my chainsaw ...

Sure, and nobody is going to

Anonymous's picture

Sure, and nobody is going to tell you how to route packets on your _private_ network. Networks which travel across public land and non-shared sections of the public radio spectrum are not private networks; they exist at the sufferance of the public, who have a right to expect something in return. Probably more than they are currently getting.

Nobody is talking about regulating the ethernet cables in my home or office, and if I run a cable alongside the window to my neighbour and extend the network to him over land we own nobody is going to regulate that either.

What did that strawman ever do to you, anyway?

I know your a troll

Mondo's picture

I know your a troll but...
The internet and almost everything involved with it came from the state sector. Computers, electronics, biotech and pharmaceuticals among others were all initiated and sustained with massive state funding. The idea is for the public to pay the price and if anything comes of it well you hand it over to corporations. This is your free market, troll. Big bussiness abhors free markets because they can't control them, therefore they aren't allowed to exist.

Bang on mondo! you nailed it

Dalani's picture

Bang on mondo! you nailed it on the head!

I remember B Gates hypocritical speech saying the net was built on the backs of corporations, when in fact, the opposite is true. The net was built with tax payers money and participation of millions of contributors worldwide who continue to add to the nets value by uploading content. Without content, the net would be worthless (without water what good is a pipe?). If carriers started charging for the use of their pipes by the byte, countless net surfers would suddenly rub their eyes, look up from their monitors and find a sudden renewed interest in SMALL PRESS PUBLICATIONS, newspapers, the CD collections gathering dust and their public libraries. Yes Mr Carrier be afraid be very afraid. You can charge toll but we FLY.

i disagree

Electrolux's picture

The dude is obviously a troll, but I think response is somewhat mistaken.

Being hooked up to the internet does not make SBC (for example) a public utility. It is SBC's various agreements with government that make it a public utility. These agreements are what allow SBC to use extremely valuable public and private resources -- airwaves, easements, etc. -- which do not belong to SBC. The agreements in turn make very strong requirements on the way that SBC does business, so that (hopefully) the services SBC provides are beneficial to the general public.

contacting congresscritters

Anonymous's picture

You can contact your local congressperson via

I would suggest, though, that our voices would be made louder by writing Businessweek, the economist, et. al. as well.

The sky is falling, the sky is falling...

Anonymous's picture

First I am an amateur in the field...

Second do not under estimate the power of those companies who reply on the 'net to generate revenue - Google, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ebay, Microsoft. These companies will work against any legislation they deem threatening to their interests.

Third if the cost becomes to high, if every byte has a price people will begin to leave the Internet as we know it. However alter-'nets will spring up and connect the over regulated United States to the outside world. Basically if the landlines get too expensive people will look at satellite networks or new networks with alternate landlines will spring up.

I don't think it will be a question of lack of an Internet-style netowrk for people to use, but it might be a network different from the one we know. The information will be delivered by a more circuitous route than now - via Albuquerque for example!

Just my guess/opinion. You've certainly done alot of research.

I'm tired of everything in America having a price tag, everything has a sponsored ad attached, everything is filling the bank account of someone...

Linux and other grassroots efforts are the right answer for me and mine.

Chris in Cookeville

I think everyone is missing

kneejerk's picture

I think everyone is missing something when they talk about alter networks and such. The internet isn't the pipes, it's the protocols. TCP/IP. And the protocols don't care what medium they're sent thru. Cable, wireless, satellite, smoke-signals, semaphore, laser beams - it doesn't matter. The internet is about how to get data from one place to another, not what format it gets sent in.

Grassroots ? I doubt it

Coeurderoy's picture

After all when the big motor companies destroyed the american rail system, we saw all the grassroot efforts create currently existing nice and pervasive public transportation system.

American people didn't let a perverted market impose on them through hype and marketing a "car culture" that:
- would poison them through lead additive (until the market is large enough to limit the risk that using agrifuel would change the rules of the monopoly.
- kill them (through an excess of accident)
- Forces them into prolongued adolescence (no drinking before 21 it might infringe on your driving)
- Bring them to war (where did I put my oil barrel ?)

So no if the american people do not start to hit their representatives on the head(figuratively), they will be s....ed

Heh, great comment. :) And

Anonymous's picture

Heh, great comment. :) And dead-on.

Re: The sky is falling, the sky is falling...

Lemi4 aka. fERDI:)'s picture

.... However alter-'nets will spring up and connect the over regulated United States to the outside world. Basically if the landlines get too expensive people will look at satellite networks or new networks with alternate landlines will spring up.

Provided that said alter-'nets manage to gather the necessary capital to challenge the incumbents. It wouldn't be too hard to imagine that the incumbents would be firmly entrenched at such time having controlled a monopoly of 'the pipes', while having capital and legislation on their side. Market laws would suggest that incumbents would fight any attempt at entry by newcomers (eg. Walmart would like to keep Carrefour out of the US), so even if a new startup would like to get into the market It would take a huge amount of capital to get into the fight.

You can't erect a giant to fight a giant (or even try to become giants yourselves). You've got to gather a big enough crowd to challenge the giant, since no matter how big it grows the giant is still just a subset of society. Grassroots movements are definitely a viable answer, but as Lessig has suggested at OSCON oh so long ago, we need to unite...

bellsouth pulls donation after nola announces wifi plan

mobius's picture

Hours after New Orleans officials announced Tuesday that they would deploy a city-owned, wireless Internet network in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, regional phone giant BellSouth Corp. withdrew an offer to donate one of its damaged buildings that would have housed new police headquarters, city officials said yesterday.