From 0 to 1 in 100 years

by Doc Searls

Net Neutrality is a snowball.

That is, it's an idea that started small but grew steadily as it rolled forward, gaining mass and speed as it accreted the passions and opinions of many -- on all sides of the issue. Today the topic is so large and complex that it's hard to find where it began. It has also become so highly politicized that it may sink the telecom reform legislation that carriers have been working on since the last round of reform, in 1996.

Google currently lists 36.4 million results for "net neutrality" and another 3.13 million for "network neutrality". The top of five "sponsored links" is for, a carrier-funded anti-neutrality PR site. The next four are for pro-neutrality organizations. I like the one that says

Greedy Telecom Monopolies

If They Had Their Way,

You Would Never Find This Article.

Perhaps the biggest of the Pro-Neutrality sites is, a coalition representing what Anti-Neutro blogger Richard Bennett calls "A. The end to end cargo cult... B. Big Content Companies... C. Political bloggers... (and) D. Bewildered PACs".

Its equivalent on the Anti-Neutro side is Hands Off The Internet, which calls itself "a nationwide coalition of Internet users" even though its "member organizations" include Cingular, AT&T/SBC, BellSouth and Alcatel. Also the National Black Chamber of Commerce. (Follow the money.)

Yet, as with every runaway snowball, Net Neutrality has long since passed out of its originators' control.

Case in point. The top Net Neutrality search result on Google goes to the Wikipedia entry for Network Neutrality. The original version of that entry appeared on January 15, 2005 and had 246 words, including headlines and external links. The current version has 7,756 words (that's 361 more than yesterday), and is updated many times every day by both pro- and anti-neutrality authors (21 times today, so far, and it's only 10:45am Pacific time). Go read it, if you can.

Each side frames the debate in its own terms, of course. To the carriers, it's about competition and keeping business safe from government interference. To the Neutros, it's about using government to keep the Net safe from carriers' plans to turn it into a system of toll roads. Never mind that the carriers are monopolists who deeply fear the same free market they pretend to advocate. And never mind the fact that "neutrality" is an ideal that few ordinary citizens with a DSL or a cable connection have ever experienced, since tiered and crippled services are all the carriers have ever offered to "consumers" in any case.

Not surprisingly, Republicans oppose Net Neutrality while Democrats favor it. There are some exceptions, but that's basically how the partisan lines divide. Both sides are also highly focused on the current battle.

To those of us with libertarian leanings (I'm one), failure would be a fine fate for telecom legislation that promises "deregulation" and "reform" while providing little of either.

Bob Frankston, coinventor of the spreadsheet and one of the fathers of home networking, dismisses the entire "Regulatorium", including all efforts to define and limit infrastructure for the protection and convenience of carriers. To Bob, the Net's infrastructure is nothing more than a path. Which is why he likes to compare the Net to roads and sidewalks. Would we want to pay tolls for using the sidewalks and roads in front of our house?

Every analogy breaks down around exceptions, of course, and the biggest exception to the road-and-sidewalk analogy is abundance. As Bob also points out, the 15Mb of downstream sidewalk he gets over Verizon's fiber optic home service is only one percent of the broadway he'd have if Verizon weren't busy making the Net scarce for its customers.

The biggest problem for the carriers is that, once the capacity is provided, there is little scarcity to leverage. Yes, there are costs -- very large ones in some cases -- to bringing fiber-grade internet connections to homes and businesses. And there are costs for connecting to backbones. But we need to depend on carriers to fund the capacity? Put another way, Why should we depend on companies that accelerate into the future with one foot on the brake pedal while they park in the middle of intersections and charge us to cross them?

The short answer is, We shouldn't.

That means we have to depend on ourselves.

And the tide of history. Because that, more than anything else, is on our side.

I hadn't realized how much we had going for us until my wife said something brilliant the other day. We'd been talking about all this Net Neutrality stuff. Aso about the economy in general. She summarized matters this way:

"We're in the middle of a 100-year transition from analog to digital technology. That means we have another fifty years of prosperity and growth."

Right then I realized that Net Neutrality is just another name for a clear digital path between devices. Regardless of how near or far away they may be. And that there is an incalculable sum of money to be made in clearing those paths and putting them to use. Also that I won't live to see the job finished.

"Broadband" is like "long distance": just another name for transient scarcity. We want our Net to be as fast, accessible and unrestricted as a hard drive. (And in time even that analogy will seem too slow.)

The only way that will happen is if the Net becomes ubiquitous infrastructure -- something which, in a practical sense, nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve.

There is infinitely more business in making that happen, and using the results, than Congress can ever protect for the carriers alone.

And guess who is in the best position to make money doing that? Right: the carriers.

Will somebody please tell them?

This piece originally appeared as the 6 July 2006 issue of the SuitWatch newsletter.

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