Many thanks to David Isenberg for inviting me to speak today. Here is a copy of my notes for today’s talk.
Life is short, so I have put on the screen an image of a clock whose hands are close to midnight.
It’s always good to have a sense of urgency, both in movies and in talks like this one. And to face the big questions.
Here’s one: What makes a life significant? There’s an essay by William James with this title that I look back to. James says that some inner ideal is necessary — and that the ideal should be a product of the intellect somehow, and be the subject of conscious reflection, and be novel rather than everyday.
An ideal by itself doesn’t make a life significant. It has to be joined with active will — courage — endurance.
These kinds of ideals, and that kind of will, are present in each of us, and in the people we deal with (no matter what company they work for). And so it is never a good idea to have disdain for the person you meet based on his/her affiliation; that person probably has ideals of his/her own, and a significant life.
Here’s another image of that clock whose hands are close to midnight. My father’s life is slowly drawing to a close, not this month, not next month, but someday. When I visit we listen to music together — Mahler’s 10th symphony, or Beethoven piano sonatas, or Bach organ pieces. He is a composer, and for him the ideal is music — pure human expression.
So I’d like to try to draw together (1) music as an ideal and (2) the great subjects of this conference, while making my short talk as human as possible. There is nothing more human than music; every culture has it.
The key questions on which people here often focus are prompted by the fact that access to the logical architecture that is the internet is now provided in this country by very large companies that we broadly call “network operators.”
It’s well known that there is inadequate competition for network access, but it’s also pretty clear that there is no single provider of these services in the U.S.
Instead, we have a condition of oligopoly. This means that there are few sellers of this access, and all of them act while considering the profits of their industry as a whole. Any one firm may cut its prices slightly, and all the other firms will likely follow, but we will never see real price competition, or price wars, because that would destroy this industry.
There are two unspoken conventions that exist: never use price as a weapon, and ensure that there are significant barriers to entry for new competitors. So the prices they charge don’t reflect the ebb and flow of user demand. Also, the access products of these oligopolists are not completely substitutable — their bundles are not exactly alike. Nonetheless, even oligopolists want to extend their market share, and so we see a great deal of emphasis on persuasion and advertising to make users choose their product.
These actors have enormous market power, different in degree only from that of a true monopolist. It is the same kind of power.
What do we do about this? Well, an antitrust remedy probably would not work; we would be indicting the entire fabric of the U.S. economy, which relies on many sets of oligopolistic players. And these particular network operators are not colluding in classic antitrust fashion; instead, they are merely acting with the interests of the entire industry in mind. Their prices are different enough to withstand antitrust scrutiny; they adhere to the letter of the law.
So what other actions could we take? Perhaps we have been too stuck on the competitive model. We have been too convinced that other companies will constrain these network operators to act in socially appropriate ways.
We need to think differently, and this is where both music and John Kenneth Galbraith come in.
He pointed out that although in the competitive world we think that other lateral competitors will ensure that action of market-dominant actors will ensure that behavior is socially desirable, instead in this oligopolist world restraint on private power comes from the opposite side of the market. From retailers of the “product” (here, internet access is the “product,” so retailers are ISPs) or consumers or users of that product. His name for this constraining power was “countervailing power.”
So let’s explore countervailing power. Could it come from retailers?
No, not really. In the network operator’s world, they are sufficiently vertically integrated, and have been sufficiently assisted by regulation in this vertical integration, that the retail level of ISP no longer exists.
So where should such countervailing power come from to protect all of us from oligopolist providers?
Whatever direction we end up going, be it structural separation or a nondiscrimination rule enshrined in a statute, we will need the countervailing power of users/consumers.
User power needs to be organized in response to the network operators’ power. It needs to be aggregated and made visible. Without it, we’ll have no votes, no policy changes, and the oligopolists will be able to continue to act with unfettered discretion.
We can be as smart as we want to be, but without user power we will have nothing.
How do we gather together this user power? We need to have users tell their own stories — not about technology, not about gadgets, but about how their own ideals have been joined to action (facilitated, made possible) by access to the internet. Each of us has these ideals. Our challenge is to show the world how access to the internet has made significant lives even more significant.
And here is the music tie-in — Galbraith, our friend with the countervailing power, always led the singing on New Year’s Eve.
Again, life is short. And because it is, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow I want to have asked you to do some local act on OneWebDay. OWD came out of a meeting much like this one. It came from Isenberg, Weinberger, and Searls as well as me. We’re now in the third year of OWD. It’s out of character for me to be working on this. It’s a simple idea, a soft idea, an idea that takes a lot of sales — and I am terrible at sales. I’m not naturally suited to leading a movement, and I am unsure of everything except the idea that people are basically good. Which is why I need your help.
The idea behind OneWebDay is that it is an Earth Day for the internet. We are trying to create a global constituency that cares about the future of the internet. We’re emphasizing the positive impact of the internet on human lives, and reflecting on the threats to the internet around the world (censorship, controllers of different kinds) and what we can do about them. It is a day for local concerns to be paramount, but there are events around the world and online.
Each talk can have only one idea in it, and here is the point of this talk. We need to create countervailing power, and that power will come through users. OneWebDay gives us a chance to build the countervailing force that is needed. We are lucky to have our work and our lives so intertwined; and in our short lives, there is a great debate about the future of the internet going on. The key source of countervailing power that has not yet been called on yet — called to itself — is a kind of human music. I am asking you to assist in drawing out those stories.