David Isenberg, author of the Rise of the Stupid Network and other classics, currently a fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard, has posted a great response to Bruce’s coming book on his blog.
The entry is reposted here with his permission:
The battle for Internet freedom has been joined.
Recently a Google
spokesman responded to assertions that Internet companies, “would
not use our pipes for free,” by BellSouth, Verizon and the new AT&T,
saying, “Google is not discussing sharing of the costs of broadband
networks with any carrier. We believe consumers are already paying to
support broadband access to the Internet through subscription fees
and, as a result, consumers should have the freedom to use this
connection without limitations." The battle is bigger than Google
versus the telcos. It is about whether Internet access is a freedom,
like freedom of the press, or a privilege that may be granted or
The Internet’s astounding growth in usefulness, in number of users,
and in traffic quantity is due, precisely, to, “the freedom to use
this connection without limitations.” Its success comes from
Internet users’ ability to send and receive virtually any string of
1s and 0s. For the last decade, no gatekeeper has stood between the
user and the Internet to slow (or speed) the 1s and 0s based on their
source, destination or meaning –the Internet treats each bit the same
as every other. As a result, anybody could try out a new idea,
however harebrained, without crossing a ponderous permission
barrier. A hobbyist collecting Pez dispensers could develop the idea
to become Ebay. A couple of Stanford students could start Google and
build a better search engine. Two guys in Europe could assemble a
handful of programmers to invent Skype and threaten the trillion-
dollar annual global tel-economy.
Behind the obvious usefulness of Google, Ebay, Skype and other
Internet applications we use every day, there are thousands of
invisible Internet flops. The experimental process that the Internet
enables lets users discover the applications and content they want.
The good stuff floats to the top. Gatekeepers would interfere. They
wound never know as much about what users want as users themselves.
If each fragile Internet experiment had to be authorized to, “use our
pipes,” if each young innovator had to pay for the privilege, many
such experiments, even today’s great successes, might never have had
a chance. The Internet’s blindness to content, even though this
blindness also allows malware, spam and objectionable material, has
led it to overwhelm gated systems like Compuserve and Prodigy; today
it even threatens the telephone companies.
Telephone companies are fighting back. They have declared their
intent to know what travels on their networks and charge
discriminatorily based on this knowledge. They have pushed US courts
and the FCC to decide that the Internet is an information service but
not essential infrastructure, so gatekeepers can decide who has
privilege to use their network. They have shaped FCC proceedings to
burden innovators with emergency dialing and wiretapping requirements
that, in a Kafka-esque turn, have not yet been specified but must,
nevertheless, be met on schedule. They have shaped legislation
before the US Congress that would protect telephone company Internet
systems with special carve-outs for voice and video services, but
burden innovators with federal registration, connection by private
commercial arrangement or the threat of banishment to left-over,
unregulated, spare capacity.
The legislation in Congress turns on two words, Network Neutrality.
Network Neutrality means that the network does not discriminate among
different types of traffic based on the traffic’s source, destination
or content. In committee hearings, telephone companies claimed that
they would not slow traffic that does not pay, only that they would
speed traffic that does, but this is simply marketing language for
the same discrimination. There were strong Network Neutrality words
in draft telecom legislation before the U.S. House Commerce
Committee, but these were removed in a second draft, because,
according to Chairman Barton, “Nobody I talked to liked the first
draft.” The bill’s third draft is now in renewed negotiations.
At issue: Is Internet access a freedom or a privilege? Just as
Freedom of Speech means that, with very few limitations, nobody has
the right to tell somebody else what to say, so should Internet
freedom mean that gatekeepers should not control Internet
applications or content. This is essential not just as a matter of
freedom, but also as a matter of commerce, because the Internet’s
success is directly due to its content-blindness. If the United
States fails to understand this, U.S. Internet leadership will follow
U.S. leadership in agriculture, in steel, in autos, and in consumer
electronics to other countries that do.