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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Doc's picture

Is that the same freedom that requires the amateurs to aquire federal approval before raising their voice. More specifically, the FCC controls HAMs through licensing which is purposely exclusionary and limiting. Can your mother grab hold of a HAM microphone and start transmitting such as she could set up a website to express her views? How is this freedom?

There is NO freedom in HAM in the United States. NONE.

Interestingly enough, if

Anonymous's picture

Interestingly enough, if millions of Americans bought HAM radios and just started using them like Citizen Band Radios, HAM-specific regulations would go the way of alcohol prohibition after juries rightfully decided not to convict someone for fermenting grapes, distilling grains, and/or drinking/distributing a liquid called alcohol.

Such is also the case with many other "regulated" activities.

Most states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books but you don't see your next door neighbors, Ozzy and Harriet, being persecuted and prosecuted for the mutually consensual personal erotic enjoyment that they personally enjoy/prefer. Same goes for Ozzy and Ozzy also.

I can't wait til we by-pass the tubes and pipes of the telcoms and tvcoms for our own privately created and maintained long-range WiFi and perhaps microwave/satnet systems.


YapiTec's picture


The internet sure is an open

Architects India's picture

The internet sure is an open market for innovation and whether an industry likes it or not they can, will and have to realize the fact that their business can thrive because of the power internet. As an architect the internet broadens your perspective in more ways than one.

Language follows from concept

Todd Boyle's picture

Thank you for the comments on framing, and the Lakoff citation. I think of the Internet differently than you because I think of information itself, differently. To me, information is the ocean of symbols that people generate, mostly misleading and untruthful, for their various purposes. For example, people and organizations work most of their waking hours exaggerating the benefits of everything they sell or do, and trying to hide or minimize the harms and costs of their behavior. With what little time remains, after creating our BS, we try to decipher the stream of BS from other people and orgs.

The *only* reason cable or telecom was ever valuable in the first place, either to users or to capitalists who built them, is because of the value of information itself.

Real outcomes in life are often decided more by the manipulation of what is in the other guy's mind than by real or tangible things.

I tell my city council, Verizon and Comcast are intent on screwing me out of access to information about all of life's choices: what I can buy, or what I can sell, or what my political choices are. An information service is not a commodity like pork bellies, or real estate. Its value is a function of its control over all the other value in the economy. Are we to sit idly by, as the communication media extract the entire marginal value of every other product and service, rendering them commodities?

No, this is about more than property rights over their cable plant.

A mere investment in cable plant isn't going to get you control over the entire human project, sorry about that. In fact, it seems inevitable that the cable plant (I include wireless and spectrum) is going to have to be nationalized or socialized, one way or another. The carriers have gotten so powerful that the people of this country have lost the ability to manage them. I say, nationalize the cable plant. It has been paid for by ratepayers within a regulated monopoly, many times over. How stupid are we? I tried to explain this in my essay at

Saving the Net

Shabetai Perera's picture

Internet is a network of computers, nothing more and nothing less. If it were not for open colusion between carriers, cost of bandwith should and eventually will become negligible (see: game theory, prisoners' dilemma). Content has value so content providers will rule the internet. Content providers will enforce copyrights, sometimes to the extreme (see SONY and CD piracy) but unless they can patent ones and zeroes (Onion headline: Microsoft patents ones and zeroes!) they should be given their legitimate rights and will not be a threat.

The Disaster will not happen

Michelle's picture

To put it simply ...

We have a handful of telecommunication companies versus tons of businesses and corporations making money off the average internet users. Google, Microsoft, the W3C and countless others are on our side, they will fight for us, I'm not worried at all.

The Future of the Internet And How To Stop It

Al Sherwood's picture

Jonathan Zittrain has written a paper called the "Future of the Internet and How To Stop It." I'm interested in anyone who has read it and their analysis in the context of Doc's comments. Is it an apology for those who are trying to extend IP into everything in our lives and choke the Net of creativity or is it a realistic appraisal about compromises that must be made to preserve and extend what we have helped create via the Internet and the Web.

It's all about greed, control and power. Same as usual.

Anonymous's picture

If they get away with it in America, dont think you'll be safe in Europe or China. Money and greed have no political or geographical boundries. And Globalization with corporations is happening whether you like it or not. How really far off is a Robocop type world where a few large corporations control everything, including the Internet and your access to it.

I think this battle is already lost anyway, and the cable companies etc.. know it. Google did the right thing; if you dont like it build your own..

Time to get pioneering again and open some new frontiers. And this time set laws and rules that prevent it [ The New Net] from being mis-used this way again. Using the US Constitution as a backbrace for the right of every citizen to have Free access to the Net .

We build a New infrastructure outside of The Old Internet and use our Rights of Access as a Gateway while maintaining our own unique Internet outside that is not controlled by anyone, anywhere as it should be.

It's happening already and you can be sure all the geeks like many of us are building neighborhood and community networks to file share and play games thats already a seperate entity from the internet, while maintaining a open Gateway back into the WWW when we want access.

Together with the Universities and other neutral private industry groups we can set up a new Internet.

and we better do it before the big guys somehow figure out how to lock us out of the wireless bandwidth or restrict us in such a way that a New Internet will be crippled and un-usable.

Or something like charging consumers for bandwidth on the wireless 802.11 even if they do not actually own the transmitting equipment.

Like the Post Office wanting to tax US consumers for using email because it caused profit losses with regular first class mail. Of course even though the post office does not even own the internet or even have the right.

It's just to complicated for the average citizen [American] to grasp and most simply do not care if it isnt directly interfering with the usual trip to the mall or coffehouse.

As a tech I can tell you 90% of my friends and customers do not even really know what the Net is: or care. They will simply eat whatever they're fed as long as it looks nice on the outside and smells good.

They will not notice or even care if it's different on the inside. And we the people who care about keeping The Net True are too few in numbers and resources. Like really, when WAS the last time you schmoozed your money grubbing local politician with a free lunch or box seats at the B-Ball game ? We've already been sold out.

We will simply need to build another net. And I'm sure if we are not careful it may become illegal to even do that; imagine.
It would be easy to bog down starting any type of New Internet infrastructure with rules and regulations that only those with deep pockets can abide by.

Or worst yet taxing the broadband 802.11 wireless spectrum and forcing anyone who uses it to identify themselves with a callsign that must be registered which in turn will allow your bandwidth usage to be monitored, controlled and taxed. Anyone then transmitting on these frequencies without paying taxes and the proper ID can be considered criminals: thats you and me. You'll have people like meter maids driving around with rf sniffers looking for Airwave thieves.

Can they tax the Free air, sure. They can do anything they want if we let them.

We need a new internet.

Please excuse any typo's.

Internal USA error

maclav13's picture

Hope this is a problem of USA only and no other country shall follow it. The Internet is hopefully so dumb it shall not realize it is splitted in two.

Re: Internal USA error

Rick Scrub's picture

I doubt that 8-))))

All this trends swap to europe with some months/years delay. Hope this is not happening here.

Local reflections and thoughts

Brian R.'s picture

The global consequences of these issues are HUGE. The world is full of localities feeling the effects. Here is a link to my thoughts about the difficulties getting a free muni network in Chapel Hill, NC. Angry BellSouth and Anti-Public Good Chapel Hill Business I link to this article. I belive "Saving the Net" provides important historical information. Thank you Doc!


Anonymous's picture

The big fear is commoditization, a la long-distance. It costs cable companies $5.00 to $9.00 per month to provide internet connectivity to a home where the fee is $20.00 to $45.00 per month. That kind of margin could make several trainloads of millionaries as opposed to a handful of billionaires. Layer that with IP based content providers who can give 100% customizable programming, funded with micropayments from users who aren't wading thru gobbidge (think QVC) to get to it and the connectivity providers realize it's game over.

Re: Bravo

Paddy Forsmann's picture

Well - the profit-margin is OK, in my opinion. Of course "the cheaper, the better" ... but it is not too expensive. There are other countries, like Thailand (where I live in), where for a slow 256 Megabit-Line you have to pay 25$ to 50$. Dont ask about the prices of "real Internet". 8-))))

the net and "peak oil"

Artie's picture

"The Information Age may be here, but the Industrial Age is hardly over. In fact, there is no sign it will ever end."

I was with you, Doc, 'till this point. You make some spot-on observations about the 'net, the carriers, content makers and us little guys, but you have completely overlooked the energy component of it all.

In fact, there are many credible signs that the Industrial Age is nearing an end. While you still can, google for "peak oil." Read Matthew Simmons, James Howard Kunstler, and dozens of others who are already discussing what will happen when it takes a gallon of oil to pump a gallon of oil out of the ground.

Eventually the energy costs of running the global 'net - combined with the greedy machinations of the carriers and the content creators - will force small communities of like-minded individuals to buy and run their own LANs, rings, etc. and who knows how these smaller nets will interact?

That's a question I'd like to see answered here.


What's next?

Doc Searls's picture

Ken Deffeyes of Princeton wrote Hubbert's Peak in 2001, and followed it this year with Beyond Oil. The man knows what he's talking about and I believe him.

And i agree that the time will come when power will necessarily shift to the personal, and the local.

As for the Industrial Age ending, I wasn't talking about any of that, but about the persistent asymmetries of power between supply and demand, formed during the Industrial Age, and persisting well beyond the present. The End of that may be coming, but I'm not sure it's in sight, even withstanding Hubbert's Peak.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

We Can't Win, or Can We?

Another Guy's picture

The subject of my comment says it all. We have no chance of winning. We the people that is- the people who feed the fat mouths of the fat businesses who bully us to feed them more. We the little people compared to the "big people" of the big businesses who run not only the US, but the world. The funny thing is that we the people, or most of them that is, let it happen. We are still letting it happen today. Don't like your isp? Then go WiFi. Don't have WiFi access, then make one. But it sure as hell won't be cheap.
The problem with the companies today (Sony, biggest example) is that they treat us worse than dog crap. They treat us like criminals when we are the ones who bought/buy thier products-in our own damn country.
These companies are going to a far reach to be able to tell us we can't download this, access this, or view that. F*** them, I say. I pay good money to connect to this internet that is maintained (the place, not the pipes) by the people.
(Now going to talk about piracy) The companies such as the RIAA and MPAA shouldn't fight the people who are "stealing" "thier" content. I think they should embrace it. So what if they lose a couple of pennies out of thier fat buldging pocket. As long as people like the music, I think that if they are responsible enough and don't want to waste a lot of GBs, then they go buy the CD. But this entire DRM crap is ridiculous. There's always another way around it, there will always be.
The problem is the big companies who are sitting in thier 42 room houses smoking pipes and sipping on $300 wine think that the American and world "consumers" are nothing but idiots who can't even live without the microwave or television. That's why they can't win in this way. We the people are too smart and can figure a way around the DRM, flags, and etc. It may take a year, it may take ten, or even a hundred years for us to find an alternative to the internet where it may be a free place to share ideas and information, and be free from the communications market. And possibly free.
The companies who think that the American society is made up of degenerates and losers are the ones who will eventually lose. The modern computers were made by geeks and nerds still in school. Not some fancy technicians who were paid big bucks to be able to throw together a hard drive, a processer, a motherboard and a cooling unit all in a bright excessed case. How does this relate to the whole pipes deal? It relates to it in a similar way. What the global consumers don't realize is that the telecommunication industry isn't that smart. If you were to ever watch "The History of Hacking", it shows the original Captain Crunch and Steve Wozniak(co-founder of Apple) who "hacked" the phone systems with a little box that made dial noises to be able to get free calls to anywhere in the world.
That wasn't long ago. The communication industry didn't just jump off it's butt and get smart with technology. The smartist thing in the world is the human brain, not the computer, not a machine, and not pipes assigned by a big company. You have to be smarter than the object you are using. I know there are brains out there who can make a free alternative to the internet in very little time. Its all will power and the ability to pry yourself from a computer screen and the television.
Sure the future internet may not be completely free, it shouldn't be. As long as its free from wires and out of the greedy business leader's hands, and into the public's then thats alright with me. It shouldn't be free, but it shouldn't cost you a half of your check a month. This is so because it costs money to run a WiFi station. It needs to be maintained by people. I can tell you right now that something such as WiFi can be much cheaper than installing wires and pipes into each individual household-as long as it has a stable and distant signal.
All of that is for the future, but right now we the people are losing a battle on our own turf. The sad part is we are helping them and not ourselves. If you want to help feed this albatross of an industry, then thats your choice, but I myself would love to see something that evey person on the earth deserves- freedom of speech and free of charge from it.
And would the governments like this idea? Hell no, but for thier information its none of thier damn business. All they are supposed to do is enforce the laws of the states/country(s), not control the economy and everything that happens in it(unless communist).
If I am wrong about anything, then feel free to correct me. But I stand by my points.

This is not protection

Anonymous's picture

This is not about protection its about control.

I don't want to make your day any WORSE, but ...

mrG's picture

I do hope you've read Kim Veltman's 2004 paper "American Visions of the Internet: A Crisis of Trust" ... easily reason for 1001 sleepless nights; if you know Kim, you'll know he's not the sort to fly off the handle, over-reacting to imagined dangers, and certainly not the sort to make this stuff up.

Thanks for raising this issue (again) and I hope others in prominence among this community will follow your lead, sift the fact and factions from the rhetoric and speak out. (see also Lawrence Lessig's comments on this issue in Foreign Policy)

This issue is important, more so now than ever before, and more and more with each passing page of legislation and corporate policy. It's important we raise awareness and put out a call to action NOW because mass apathy and denial has only so far landed us in a far worse pickle.

Also, maybe worth a footnote too, speaking of Vint, that the short-lived ISOC "Internet Societal Task Force" that he had founded expressly to defend an "Internet for Everyone" was shut-down unceremoniously post 9/11, co-incidentally just after presenting a draft position paper condemning American influence from shutting down the entire Internet across Nigeria on the grounds of "terrorist connections", both actions being blanket and instantaneous knee-jerk moves that really should put chills down more spines among those who believe everything is 'copacetic'.

What the Internet is

Jacob Hallén's picture

I think you are going down the wrong path trying to define what
the Internet is, in terms of pipes, market place etc.

To me, the Internet is an electronically based outdoors. While
you can hold a market in the outdoors, the outdoors is not a

You can run pipes (and roads and tracks) through the outdoors,
but the outdoors is not a set of pipes.

Just as I can step out my front door and go to anybody elses house,
I can step out through my socket port and go to anybody elses socket.

I think lawmakers and law interpreters have no notion or
understanding of this whatsoever. The reason is that we have
failed to explain what the Internet is. We have just been talking
about some of the things you can do with it.


jbond's picture

Great article, but damn if it isn't US-Centric through and through. In my deepest moments late at night, I really wish the US would set up "The Great Wall of America" and prevent any internet trafic in and out of the continental United States. Then the rest of us in Europe, SE Asia and elsewhere could get on with building internet activity without constantly being distracted by US law and money. And the chilling effect of US Law being exported elsewhere.

Back in the early days of the net, UK ISPs like Demon used to buy their own pipes across the atlantic. We speculated on what would happen if these were cut off. Would the US disappear off the net from the point of view of Europe? And the answer is not really and only for 5 minutes. Market demand would make a new supply profitable and a new supply would appear. You hint at the same solution. If the Cable companies and Telcos close off access and make it awkward, market demand will drive new entrants whether it's Google, a Muni Wifi or a bunch of linksys hackers that figure out how to do Wifi mesh on a large scale.

Which brings me to the Alternet. The NEA principle of the current internet is also global and ultimately unstoppable as long as we keep building out at the edge. There'll always be some clever coders in Estonia who will attract attention from some VC in Brazil, set up in Malaysia and get critical mass in China (or whatever). And SBC's customers will sart using it and demanding it long before they work out how to block it.

let it be

Zeroth's picture

The internet was great idea, tainted by greed. The internet is about freedom of information exchange. Thats it. It is where brilliant minds collaberate on projects that will help the internet, and in turn, humanity. The internet as it is now is corrupt with corporations just trying to make another dollar. So if we truley will have to pay to use any aspect of the internet, if it is not trule open and limitless, then let it be. Thoes who really care about freedom of information will resort to something better. maybe we'll all regress back to the Bulletin board days.

What really needs to be done is this: Thoes that truely care about freedom of information, and this virtual playground, need to create a nonprofit telecommunications company.

Farfetched? just imagine it: No restricitons, no fees, just a world-wide lan party.

for let it be

jony's picture

Very beautiful idea but regrettably this not possible, all world shift to the right money

non-profit telcom

pdor's picture

I've started and sold one successful for profit telecom company. Flesh out for me how a non-profit one would be financed and function. I might be interested.

We need an Un-telecom Paradigm

Anonymous's picture

Non-profit telecom? Why not? Lots of talk and good ideas here (Thanks again for your leadership, Doc), but the remedy in the end is more action at the grassroots and out on the ends of the networks (and please, a dose of optimism and hope, folks - the big telecos are strong, but they're looking backward and chasing the past, after all, while we're chasing the future down - that's positive! I'm with is making creative destruction ever more real in our lives - go out and light some candles and sell a new paradigm - now's the time to do it).

We need action in the form of new businesses that show a different way and shuck the old paradigms completely. We saw a lot of that at SXSW in Austin last week. Focus on what the new technologies make possible and let go of the old paradigms, which hold you back - I'm with Susan Crawford who says - "oh, forget about RBOCs and other dinosaurs - let's focus on the future and building a bypass network!"

Neighborhoods and communities now have the tools to build their own telecommunications networks, they just don't realize it yet - on a true "micro-coop" basis - these micronets will be the opposite of the large telecoms, in every sense of the word. The BIG TELECOM model is defunct and running on momentum - considerable momentum, sure, but friction will cause it to slow down. If we learned anything from all those failed CLECs, it was that you don't beat the telecoms at their own game, you change the rules!

The dumb pipe Internet, extended to the last mile with the new technologies that drive community wireless Internet (CuWin model/FON/commercial mesh/pt to pt/WiMax - pick your flavor, we'll see all of those models gain steam before the year is out) now enable cheap voice as an IP application, and increasingly we see business models whose pricing tends towards enough to give away telecom and make money on other services, which will undercut the telecoms and hit them where it hurts with erosion of ratepayers /customers.

The fact is that we are in permanent Beta out on the cutting edge, and we know it and are building our businesses to accommodate that new reality. On the other side of town, that's NOT how the large Telecoms work - they are too big and too slow to match the pace of change in today's global economy. Their backward looking vision of Big Controls All looks more and more like the old centrally planned economic plans in Moscow. Those corporate planners are too high up in their penthouse suites to see what's happening down here on teh ground. Fact is, they are up against a formidable multitude of creative, competitive companies that customers like. New business models can literally run circles around their old models, which rely on favorable regulations and rigged markets to stay in power. The creation of new Googles and eBays will get legislators' attention also - small businesses can innovate and grow into large businesses. Steve Jobs gets it, even as he is confused on DRM, he is still out there innovating with the Mac, Pixar, and iPod. Creativity will win out, and it's just that here in the US, the telecoms are currently so dominant that we tend to think that they're impregnable. But they're not creating anything new. I'm convinced that technological advances and new businesses and enlightened thinking like we see in this dialogue will combine to erode the power of the anti-free Internet Luddites over the next five years. The bigger they come, the harder they fall... If we believe in that future and act on our beliefs together, we can make it happen. My final word - Big Technology will trump Big Telecom - my bets on the bits and bytes in dumb pipes. Toll roads only work when you can't go off-road, and we can go off-road.

The Answer: Register "Civil Companies"

Gakuru's picture

In saving internet’s resilience, consumers (and the internet community) must redefine business and how it is currently licensed, conducted and perceived. Advocate for paradigm change (not a shift in redefining Corporate Social Responsibility


Anonymous's picture

I find it interesting that the same folks who worry so much about effective govt. regulation of exponentially-powerful processes -- such as the organic growth of the Internet -- are also usually major consumers of Gibson, et al, sci-fi yet don't see how contradictory these two visions are. We've seen the future. Big Brother can't win. Information is out of the bag, and neither Ed Whitacre nor DRM-crazy Steve Jobs nor the chairman of the FCC are going to be able to shove it back in. The future is too chaotic and viral in its growth path to be rigidly managed, there's ALWAYS a route-around, especially since most restrictions and regulations don't make true ECONOMIC sense -- the unrestricted flow of cash may be the ultimate route-around.

Well... I wish I had your

njs's picture

Well... I wish I had your confidence. We haven't seen the future; Gibson is called "fiction" for a reason.

There are only a small finite number of ways to build a network with global connectivity, and there can only be a small finite number of such independent networks. The only methods I know of are "lay lots of wires" (fantastically capital and labor intensive, therefore controlled by BigCo's and government), and "invent clever, robust, attack-resistent mesh routing for radio" (still theoretical, maybe it's possible, maybe it isn't, and how long will the FCC keep letting you use that spectrum once the BigCo's complain about people using it to infringe copyrights and such things?).

I _like_ Gibson. But if he contradicts physics... I think physics will win.

Well said!

bryan's picture

Anonymous: well said. The economics have to be viable, and Doc's dark view forgets that.

It's almost like Doc's arguing with himself here. In this and other material he keeps saying that markets are conversations, and any company which tries to make it a one-side conversation will end up dead. Yet here he seems to be suggesting that the telcos would be able to succeed at that one-side conversation.

Seriously, the basis of the article is a crock. There may be something to the vocabulary shifts he suggests in part 3, but I'm still too distracted by the nonsense in part 1 to fully digest that other stuff yet!

Saving the Net

Dr. Bob Hacker's picture

Good Morning:
This article could not have been more right on except for a slight scope creep to include the entire culture of the USA. It is clear to almost anyone with a little reading of American History that we have a clear effort that some call "NEOCON" and the like to restore the Royal Family (BUSH etc) as we had back in 1776. Anybody remember what happened back then; there were monopolies on just about everything.
The essence of Royalty is Monopoly; forget the rest! Use of the military to enforce a Monopoly is also a fundemental explanation of most wars; in the case of Oil, we have WW1 (Baku in Russia), WW2 (Romania, Korea, VietNam (S.China Sea), Falklands (Big Dome on the subsurface nearby), Iraq (#2 Oil province). It is clear to me!

By the way, many monopolies have led to violent Revolution as in France, Russia, USA, Iran, ......

Cry wolf

Christopher Coulter's picture

Cry wolf again and again....for raw profit. Fight a mythical beast,
collect the rewards. If said calamity never happens (which it never
will), why that just means your forces battled down the gates and won.
And you can proclaim that they got a "clue", thanks our "prescient
revelations". It won't ever happen. So crying wolf, only sets the stage of yourself forever as the protector. It's Techie Witchdoctoring. You can't lose.

Slaying the invisible dragon -- writing books, collecting speaking
fees, living a famed-honored Prophets life, being rich, being talk of
town and the party of it all.

Nice little con-game.

"Nice little

final answer's picture

"Nice little con-game."

Sounds just like Iraq.

invisible dragons, enemy "threats", and when the threat subsides(wich it won't, how convenient) can thank the knights in white house shining armor for..."keeping you safe".

I feel so cozy in my american bubble, look ma, the emperor has no clothes out for bird flu poo-poo too, the threats are everywhere, coming from all directions...would you like to buy my thimerisol laced anthrax vaccine? $49.95 at your local wal-mart.

Please continue shopping citizens.

Monopoly: Is it a word or intellectual property?

Marc Townsend's picture

Very well written piece of thinking. It instigates many different ideas inside of the conversation. None of which are easy to consider.

I feel a sense of pride towards developers in the Linux community. The roots of this work are extremely powerful and valuable. The world, and certainly America, are lucky to have your influence. It inspires myself to be one of the many.

I wonder what your thoughts on these ideas are? I realize it is too early in the game to know what will come of them, but aesthetically, as ideas... where do they fall?

This conversation goes pretty deep into the rabbit hole, depending how deep you are willing to travel. Not sure any of us have the stamina to change the world.

But I have an 8 month old son. He loves the computer. More to the point, he loves the Internet... even further he loves the content the pipes carry... actually, he just loves the lights in the monitor display... no, actually its the sound in the speakers... or is it something else entirely...?

My son has no idea what "rights" are. He has no concern for "protocols". He is just a living breathing human being seeking out things that make his experience more appealing. It is human nature to be curious and interested.

Our laws either protect and enhance the human condition, or they manipulate and enforce a human condition.

So in the strictest sense of the American conversation we are having about the Internet, the perameters are defined by the governing philosophy that constitutes our nation as a sovereign geography.

Tom's post made me ask myself "But where does the 'retreat & rebuild' creedo end?"

And Doc' reference to the Public Domain as the market's underlying geology--a place akin to the ownerless bulk of the Earth... reminded me to point out that there is no such thing as "an ownerless bulk of the Earth". Every part of this world is owned... by national boundaries.

And that brought me back to my son. Because I know that the United States of America believes it owns my son because he was born a citizen of this nation...just as I was. He was issued his state (social security) identity just to prove the point.

But I am a Virginian. And I remember the reason General Robert E Lee chose to command the Confederate Army against the Union Army that he was asked to lead. I remember that a large body of people on this planet at one time fought with their lives NOT to be participants in the next stage of America's development... as one federal system of governance. I know that the world we now live within as American's exists as a chosen path.

And knowing these things gives me a strange sense of peace.

America will be at a crossroads for some time to come. Those of us at the cutting edges of America will be fighting for ideas that have been fought for before... although never quite like this.

The Civil War was not about Slavery of black people. It was about changing business models. Employment is a much more empowered model than enslavement. The South never had a chance. But, that does not necessarily mean that a federal democracy is better than local democracies engaged in collaborative models of free exchange.

And now that we are entering the global market development stage of world histroy, the same battle lines are being drawn. Except this time it isnt about enslavement or employment... its about who or what owns your life.

Your mind is the ultimate prize.
Your body is your limiting physical geography.

Do you own either?

In an economic world... ie, one based on the invention or money... there is one thing better than "free".


Yes, we do have a communication problem.

America, as a legitimate leader of the world as a civilization of ideas, needs to be re-constituted. It needs to be re-unionized.

The internet and all of its disparate tachnologies are the tools that present the opportunity to bring about this change. But the mountain left to climb is a steep one. Would you give your life to climb it?

Entrepreneurship versus employment. Individual creativity versus centralized creativity.

What do you own?

We can in now way resemble a communist idea. Private ownership is the highest ideal of any socio-economic system. And yet, who owns the government that owns America...or any nation for that matter? As physical assets are constructed... roads, pipes, homes, etc... civilizations grow farther and farther away from the point that one life... a newborn babies life... enters the world. Ignorant of all things but self. Do newborn lives own anything?

Until the answer is determined to the affirmative... you are at risk. Your society is at risk. And no innovation should ever be viewed as a sure thing. You must fight for what you have been given... for the freedoms that have slipped, or been snuck through the cracks.

Thank you Vint Cerf for rescuing what we have today from the government's control through DARPA. That is our new beginning.

Freedom to create.
Freedom to own.

What words can transcend those ideas, without carrying ourselves backwards?

The quest continues...

You blew it about...

pb's picture

... here:

The Civil War was not about Slavery of black people. It was about changing business models.

'Nuff said.

the west

Gnoll110's picture

As an Australian, it's my understanding that the US civil war was about who would control the new western lands. Would the new territories (future states) be in the northern or southern spheres of influence?

The South saw that the North was winning more territories than the South was prepared to accept. The South wanted to take its bat & ball and go home, but the North wouldn’t let it, to the point of violence.

We know the rest of the story.


Sierra's picture

I really appreciated and say thank you for Keep up the great work online

States' rights. Come on,

ronny's picture

States' rights. Come on, anyone who's made it through 9th grade knows that.

How did (s)he blow it?

aminorex's picture

It seems patently true. Lincoln didn't want to free the slaves, as he repeatedly emphasized. Clearly the war was just about the raw excercise of sheer power. It was a war of the federal system against the people of the states, in which several of the states allied with the federal system. To insist that emancipation of slaves was a significant motivating factor in the prosecution of that war is to ignore the statements of the principals involved, preferring the mythology promoted by the brutal victor to justify their crimes over and against the simple and plain truths of historical fact.

Raw Exercise in Sheer Stupidity

LuneKeltkar's picture

You say, "Clearly the [Civil] war [sic] was just about the raw excercise [sic] of sheer power." Now there's a real insight, let me catch my breath in awe and admire such frightful intelligence. What war has ever been about anything but the raw exercise of power? The questions of wars center on their causes, and slavery most certainly was a motivational issue in the US Civil War. Any pretense otherwise is pure malarky. It falls right into the same cesspool being shoveled by the skinheads who claim that the Holocaust is all just a Jewish fiction invented to win world sympathy, poor fellows.

This sub-thread about slavery and the Civil War exactly shows the importance of the linguistic arguments advanced in this article. You say that it's "patently true" that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, and you try a linguistic sleight of hand to make that point. I say that your stance is a full stinking crock that's been sitting by the outhouse too damn long. You say that Lincoln didn't want to free the slaves. I say that he did. It's all in how we choose to frame the issue linguistically.

A lot gets wrapped up in words, because words significantly frame our perceptions of the world, and thus guide the actions that we take in that world. That's the argument at the heart of this article.

And "the mythology of the brutal victor"? Aw, please. Go back to second grade and start all over again.

Slavery, and the civil war

Zeb Packard's picture

Go to this link and read.

Abraham Lincoln was absolutely, brilliant for deciding to free the slaves. He was not necessarily, a humanitarian for it though. The slaves were freed in an effort to keep foreign forces out of the war. This is how I was taught by an African American History teacher in 8th grade. Also, worth noting here is the fact that racism has only, recently, been made illegal. The "civil" rights movement was humanitarian NOT the "civil" war. Pretending, white Americans have been decent to black Americans for over 200 years is the linguistic equivalent of saying the holocaust never happened.

Bound to get back on-topic

Slavery and the Civil War

LuneKeltkar's picture

Actually, to me this sub-thread is on topic, in the sense that it's an exploration of the way that we (to some extent undeterminable at present) partly create the world around us by the way we frame it linguistically. I never made any claims, for instance, that anyone (Lincoln or otherwise) acted from humanitarian impulses during the struggle over slavery. That was your linguistic framing, not mine, so you're in effect responding to a world (the stuff about humanitarianism) that you (not I) created.

I also said nary a word about race relations in the US since the time of the Civil War. Thus, any pretence that "white Americans have been decent to black Americans for over 200 years is the linguistic equivalent of saying the holocaust never happened" is a linguistic equivalence that you pulled from your head, not mine. I certainly don't harbor that pretence.

One last point, which does stray a bit from the linguistics angle, but you might want to actually read the Emancipation Proclamation. Your eighth-grade history teacher got it all wrong. First, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in his military role as Commander in Chief of the US federal forces, so it was a military (not a political) act. Second, contrary to a widely held misconception, Lincoln didn't free all the slaves: He only freed the slaves in slave-holding states in rebellion against the United States. The slaves in states loyal to the Union remained slaves, even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation was indeed a brilliant military, political, and economic blow against the states in rebellion, but the whole bloody mess was still about slavery.

All of the foregoing is meant to come back around to a centrally important concept in the article that started all this: The ways that we linguistically shape our issues largely determines the ways that we and other people deal with those issues.

A Possible Small Window of Freedom

Anonymous's picture

I wonder if the advancement in HAM radio TCP/IP migth afford a small window of complete freedom. If enough progress is made on the kind of synthesis between TCP/IP (or 802.11) and HAM radio capability it could allow for a possible "pipes" that are run by amateurs and not corporations. Something to think about at least. I am not a HAM and have only hear of the use very peripherally, but I wonder--what if WE THE PEOPLE took back the PIPES?


Anonymous's picture

Is that the same freedom that requires the amateurs to aquire federal approval before raising their voice. More specifically, the FCC controls HAMs through licensing which is purposely exclusionary and limiting. Can your mother grab hold of a HAM microphone and start transmitting such as she could set up a website to express her views? How is this freedom?

There is NO freedom in HAM in the United States. NONE.

I totally agree - between

Chris Metropolis's picture

I totally agree - between the various "narrowcast" methods the general public has at its disposal, we can each be a carrier for a "new" internet. Let the telcos take this one, let them get complacent with a tasty treat; in the background, a new freedom grows from wireless.

I am surprised that you

Anonymous's picture

I am surprised that you didn't mention John Walker's piece:

You say run...

Anonymous's picture

You say that we should leave the Internet to the big companies... Do you also say we should leave the amazon rainforests to the farmers who supply McDonalds? Or that we should leave the sky to the pollution which is mounting? If you keep running away from every fight, you eventually only have lost battles and nowhere else to go... Nowhere that isn't owned by someone else, nowhere that you can say you have some power of your own; and you accept defeat before you even try to repel the onslaught... In fact, you are going so far as to accept the inevitable cage that is being built up around you, becuase lets face it, the world can only belong to the wealthy few, while the majority must toil to supply them with our last drop of sweat, blood, and freedom...
I disagree, I say we need to fight with everything we have, even if sometimes a threat is a presumed one, it's better to arm yourself against a perception than to be naked in a bull-ring, to be safe than sorry... I'd rather be able to choose what I want to do with my computer than be given today's menu and make my imagined choice, which is what content providers and pipe owners would have you do...

Lousy deal

Anonymous's picture

I wish he'd spelled out a specific example or two to make the problem clear. Here's one: In my town there is exactly one broadbasnd ISP, and for any reasonable amount of money you give up the right to have a any type of server running on your computer as part of your service agreement.

From a technical perspective I could set up an online shop for my photography as a side business on my own systems, but it's not allowed. Yes there are workrounds, they've invovled paying someone else for what I ought to be able to do myself, which makes the whole thing a good bit less financially viable.

Your "we'll just build another network" solution sucks for those of us who were looking forward to having these new opportunities right about now.

"...especially about the future"

njs's picture

It is absolutely inevitable, in my opinion, that the system of yesterday will get devoured by the big companies. But while Doc suggests we should fight against this process, I say don't waste the effort.

Hmm. Except you don't know that, any more than I know the opposite. History's pretty unambiguous here: making accurate predictions about things as complicated as governments and nations is not physically possible. You can make an educated guess, and careful analysis beats guessing wildly, but in the end we just don't know.

So let's make a deal -- we'll write letters to congresspeople and work on the Next Big Thing. It's not like geeks budgeting 30 minutes once a month to write a quick note and stick a stamp on it is going to kill free innovation dead. And hey, maybe it'll do something good -- too early to say.

The stakes are too high here to screw around and take unnecessary chances; there just isn't any substitute for the capability to communicate. Think of it as the political equivalent of "belt and suspenders".

(How're you gonna get Doc's podcast if the MPAA owns the wires?)

No matter how big the box, there's always an outside

Tom's picture

"(How're you gonna get Doc's podcast if the MPAA owns the wires?)"

Go wireless...

I humbly request that

pb's picture

I humbly request that instead of spending time writing letters to Congress, that Doc make an extra podcast so that we have less reason to bother with the RIAA and MPAA.

And I humbly suggest that making another podcast is exactly what the MPAA and the RIAA would prefer Doc to do.

For some people, sticking a finger up their ass is always the easier option. Hey, it's your political system - why don't you use it? Sure, preaching to the converted is easier...