Net Neutrality, Before the Net
Net Neutrality, Before the Net
Net Neutrality, Before the Net

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    Thanks to Gigi Sohn and Scott Burns at PK for asking me to blog for a couple of weeks. I'm proud to be affiliated with this organization and the important work that it does.

    The issues that are PK's raison d'etre were part of my beat for many years when I was a technology columnist and analyst for various and sundry publications (most recently, for the New York Times). I was writing about privacy, fair use, free speech and the like before most people even had computers.

    I've been a little nervous about doing this gig — I consciously walked away from technology policy issues in deep and abiding frustration when I started my little boutique research institute, The Hybrid Vigor Institute, in 2000 — but after sniffing around a little bit at the present state of affairs, I had to chuckle (albeit ruefully) at how very, very little changes, seemingly ever.

    To wit: here's a slightly shortened version of the May 19, 1991, “Inside Technology” column I wrote for San Francisco Examiner — yes, that's 15 YEARS ago. I like to think of it as the proto-Net Neutrality problem statement:

    May 19, 1991


    Next week, Conrad Burns , the Republican senator from Montana, will introduce a bill with incentives a-go-go to get a national fiber-optic phone network up and running by the year 2015. At least two other bills on the subject are already pending. …
    Fiber is the highway system for broadband digital services like video teleconferencing, interactive TV, multimedia libraries and other such new information-age media. …
    Burns' proposed [bill] — dubbed “Destination 2015'' … wants to give phone companies incentive to install what's known as “fiber in the loop'' (fiber into the home) by allowing them to get into the lucrative and verboten information services (also known as “content'') business.
    Since the Modified Final Judgment (MFJ) broke up the Bell system in 1982, Judge Harold Greene has held fast that phone companies can't sell information (such as TV transmission or videotex, depending on the phone company) because it would be too easy for them to monopolize the network.
    So regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), which can install fiber into the home today, are widely believed to be holding back on doing so because they're still hanging a lip about the MFJ restrictions …

    … Nicholas Johnson, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from 1966 to 1973, believes the phone companies' drive to sell information services is “the No. 1 public policy issue confronting our nation.''
    Allowing the phone companies to provide both the conduit and the content is bad both for consumers and business. “It isn't in their shareholders' interest to do this,'' said Johnson. As a public utility, he says, they should only provide the “channels of communication for a democratic society.'' It's hard to sue for libel the companies that make blank videotapes or rolls of newsprint, for example. …

    “They already suck money out of both ends of the straw,'' he said. “”They charge us for getting information out of the system and they charge the supplier for putting it in. They can get rich beyond their wildest dreams of avarice by concentrating on what it is they do best [i.e., renting the conduit] — the mere fact that doing so also happens to serve the public interest should not deter them.''

    So despite the good intentions and safeguards of the Burns bill, the end result is that if passed, it may wrongly drive the first of many wedges into the MFJ, reopening the door for the kind of behavior it was supposed to squelch.
    Brice Dustman of Sen. Burns' office said, “Once you've given them the power, you can always take it away.'' But as we've all seen so many times before with technology, it's hard to jam the lid back down on that Pandora's box.
    We need a national fiber-optic network. … But Destination 2015 makes me question whether the end justifies the means.

    Well, with the poor beleaguered Modified Final Judgment long since gone the way of all flesh — pecked to death by policy ducks at the behest of the network providers — and from the vantage point of hindsight, I also question whether those of us who care about these issues are using the right means to make the Net Neutrality case.

    I mean, it's 15 years later. No matter how we get our broadband, whether we ever got around to interactive TV or think of YouTube as the same thing, the question of who controls the network has more serious consequences and higher stakes today than ever — for free speech, for consumers, for information providers who aren't fortunate enough to own their own. And yet, and yet …

    So: how can we kick this debate out of Wonkville and into the Zeitgeist?