Don Marti

Sun 18 Dec 2005 10:32:30 PM PST

Notes on Saving the Net

Communications companies are consolidating. The broken-up US phone monopoly has mostly merged back into AT&T and Verizon, and the cable industry is consolidating into a few giants: Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner. Carriers own the pipes the Internet runs on.

But carriers hate the important thing about the Internet—the fact that it, as David Isenberg once wrote, "just deliver(s) the bits, stupid."

In "Saving the Net", Doc Searls makes the case that in order to save the Internet from getting squashed by a legal regime that favors carriers, we need to build a better language to have arguments about Internet policy in.

Today, the Internet is losing the argument because we're using the wrong words, just as we've lost arguments about copyright law (and the DMCA, which is monopoly protection law pretending to be copyright law). Larry Lessig agrees with Doc about the problem of terminology in the copyright debate. Property sounds good, and, until you get down to the details, protecting something as "property rights" sounds fair. Likewise, the Internet argument goes the wrong way as long as it's just about "pipes" full of "content". Doc wants to remember that the Internet is also a place, with "sites", "locations", and "addresses", and it's a publishing system, with "pages" that we "browse" and "index".

Doc writes, "What I'm talking about here isn't "just semantics" or trivial in any other way. It's fundamental, especially to lawmaking and regulation."

"Thanks to the transport metaphor, even relatively pro-market and pro-Net regulators, such as former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, speak about 'consumers' having 'rights' to 'access' and 'attach' to 'connections' about which they should have 'choices'....One reason transport trumps place is that business itself is largely, though not entirely, conceived in shipping terms. The 'value chain' is a transportational notion. We speak of 'loading' goods into 'channels' for 'distribution' to 'end users' or 'consumers'."

"On the other hand, we have understood markets as places since marketplaces were the only kinds of markets we had....'Wall Street' is ontologically locational. It is a real place that serves, by what cognitive linguistics call metonymy, for the whole stock market, which we also conceive of as a place."

Although we use all three metaphors: pipe, place, and book, to talk about the Internet, the carriers' language domainates the policy debate. Doc writes, "They don't see themselves as a public utility selling a pure base-level service, such as water or electricity (which is what they are, by the way, in respect to the Net). They see themselves as a source of many additional value-adds, inside the pipes."

Carriers are lobbying Congress to create a new regulatory environment—not one that would turn back the clock to pre-Internet times, but one that would give them the best of old and new: Internet flexibility with pay-per-view business models. Doc: "The Net's genie, which granted all those e-commerce wishes over the past ten years, won't just get shoved back in the bottle. No, that genie will be piped and priced by the packet."

SBC CEO Edward Whitacre said about Google, MSN, and Vonage, in an interview with BusinessWeek, "How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it."

Besides framing the discussion, what else can we do to save the Internet? One alternative is to build our own "Last Mile." Susan Crawford writes, "I’m confident that any attempt at writing down network neutrality will be so qualified, gutted, eviscerated, and emptied that it will end up being worse than useless....The only way around this issue is to avoid it by encouraging the development of alternative online access methods, and being careful not to let the incumbents call them illegal....It should be no more illegal to have an open wireless network in your house than to practice the piano with the windows open. And having an open wireless network can lead to a community mesh network and a host of devices that open immediately to others, connecting us to the world."

The optimistic point of view is that the Internet doesn't need saving. Tim Lee, in response to "Saving the Net", writes, "There are dozens and dozens of specialized applications that various users access for legitimate reasons—games, VPN networks, porn streams, instant messaging, etc. There is no way that Comcast could individually approve and inspect every such application. A permission-based Internet would be unacceptably crippled to millions and millions of customers. No company is going to succeed with millions and millions of angry customers." So far, he's been right. Attempts by a few carriers to mess with VoIP services have been quickly rolled back. And, Lee adds, network neutrality legislation could do more harm than good. "The commons movement is absolutely right that lobbyists and lawyers should keep their hands off our culture. By the same token, we need to insist that they keep their hands off the Internet."

So saving the Internet isn't about users versus corporations, or Right versus Left, or even regulation versus non-regulation. The Pro-Internet side is divided on the network neutrality regulation issue. The Market won't buy Internet service that doesn't connect to the weird corners of the net, and regulations tend to work in favor of lawyer-rich companies anyway.

Best case, all we need from the law is legal wireless networks. But no matter what, we need something from the law. Doc tells us that we don't get bad law because politicans are bought off, but because "one way of framing the Net--as a transport system for content--is winning over another way of framing the Net--as a place where markets and business and culture and governance can all thrive."

"Saving the Net" is about having the right discussion, not about what the result of the discussion would be. That discussion needs to, at least in part, think of the Net as a place, and understand its value as a place. "We need to make clear that the Net is the best public place ever created for private enterprise, and that the success of the Net owes infinitely more to personal initiative than to the mesh of pipes in the ground beneath it."

That's Doc's "Saving the Net" argument as I understand it, and the good thing about it is that it raises more questions than it answers. I originally linked to it with my idea about putting letter to Congress functionality into blog software, and Doc collected that and some other followups. Here are some more things I think about at the same time as "Saving the Net": fiber down the fenceline, city Internet exchanges, the role of the small ISP, what kind of a deal on connectivity could the Homeowners' Association of a decent-sized condo complex get, and how much more could a developer sell houses for if the neighborhood GigE network happened to peer with the local school district? If the Internet is about building places, let's look to people who already think in terms of building places to participate in building it. (Doc, is the builder planning to meter that fiber he's putting in? I know when I got some Cat 6 put in, the question didn't even come up.)