Our Assignment

I've probably written more about the Internet in Linux Journal than about any other topic. Two of my longest and most cited pieces were both titled "Saving the Net". The first was in June 2003, and the second was in November 2005. Here's an excerpt from the first:

The Net's problem, from telco and cable industries' perspective, is it was born without a business model. Its standards and protocols imagine no coercive regime to require payment—no metering, no service levels, no charges for levels of bandwidth. Worse, it was designed as an end-to-end system, where all the power to create, distribute and consume are located at the ends of the system and not in the middle. In the words of David Isenberg, the Internet's innards purposefully were kept "stupid". All the intelligence properly belonged at the ends. As a pure end-to-end system, the Net also was made to be symmetrical. It wasn't supposed to be like TV, with fat content flowing in only one direction.

The Net's end-to-end nature is so severely anathema to cable and telco companies that they have done everything they can to make the Net as controlled and asymmetrical as possible. They want the Net to be more like television, and to a significant degree, they've succeeded. Most DSL and cable broadband customers take it for granted that downstream speeds are faster than upstream speeds, that they can't operate servers out of their houses and that the only e-mail addresses they can use are ones that end with the name of their telephone or cable company.

And why not? These companies "own" the Net, don't they? Well, no, they don't. They only "provide" it—critical difference.

Eleven years later, those companies are now solving that problem by shifting billing for Internet services from a single monthly subscription rate to billing for data traffic (the telco model) and for content (the cable TV model). They're implementing both gradually moving television to the Net—and turning the Net into mostly-TV in the process. Their thinking goes like this:

  1. The Net and TV are both just screens. In "Report: 90% Of Waking Hours Spent Staring At Glowing Rectangles", The Onion writes, "staring blankly at luminescent rectangles is an increasingly central part of modern life. At work, special information rectangles help men and women silently complete any number of business-related tasks, while entertainment rectangles—larger and louder and often placed inside the home—allow Americans to enter a relaxing trance-like state after a long day of rectangle-gazing." So the distinction between watching TV and using the Net hardly matters.

  2. If you have a cable or satellite subscription, you can already watch many networks—or all of them (we use Dish Anywhere)—on your laptop or hand-held. Likewise, you can watch lots of stations and networks, also with subscriptions, delivered via IP, the Internet Protocol.

  3. Captive lawmakers have kindly allowed their overlords in the content and transport industries to verticalize entertainment supply chains, making it easy to shift TV from cable and satellite to the Net, while keeping the existing billing systems intact and opening opportunities for many more. Susan Crawford unpacked this nicely in Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.

  4. Bandwidth is naturally scarce, and it costs a lot to build out infrastructure, especially for mobile devices that can suck down 4K video over cellular connections. Why not price the offerings accordingly?

And that's how Hollywood will finish body-snatching the Internet.

So, what does this mean for Linux? Won't we still be able to write code, submit patches, participate in lists and so on?

Sure, but what else? What options will be foreclosed in a system that's run by Hollywood and its allies at Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft—and the only software available for most people will be on the shelves of company stores?

In a word, freedom. In Linux Journal's bones is a belief that free software, free hardware and free people are more valuable—to themselves and to the world—than captive ones. We believe in openness too, but freedom is the deeper, more essential and more personal virtue. Freedom is embodied in the GPL v2 license that Linus chose for Linux at the start, and which I am sure is one reason Linux succeeded to degrees other OSes can only envy. Freedom is also in the hearts of Linux kernel hackers, and many Linux developers and users.

But that population is a shrinking minority among professionals working with Linux, simply because Linux is a huge success, and has enlarged the general talent pool. That's why you see billboards yelling "Do You Know Linux? WE ARE HIRING!" From the perspective of Linux 1.0, this is a dream come true. Yet knowing Linux isn't the same as sharing the values that made Linux kick butt. For some perspective on what's happening here, let's revisit "A Tale of Three Cultures", which I wrote for the March 2002 issue of Linux Journal. In it, I described what I saw as three different overlapping constituencies, each with their own cultures (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Three Cultures

Lawrence Lessig drew the Geeks/Hollywood distinction in the June 16, 2002 eWeek, where he wrote, "There's a civil war brewing in my state of California. It is again a war between the Silicon Valley-based IT industry in the North and Hollywood content and entertainment producers in the South. Silicon Valley has become the target of punitive legislation being pushed by Hollywood in Congress" (). In August of that year, he said this to the geeks assembled at an O'Reilly conference:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

The title of Larry's talk was "Free Culture", same as the book he was writing at the time. He was fighting against the expansion of copyright law at the time. We (and he) lost that fight, because Hollywood controls Washington. But never mind that. Mind instead the word culture. That's what we're talking about. We're kinda Libertarian in our approach to technology, and we'd rather not screw around with "policy", as it's known in academic circles.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal