<![CDATA[Doc Searls has an important article up on Linux Journal, Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes, that everyone concerned about the future of the Web should read.
The nut of the story is that the carriers, represented by the troglodytic Ed Whiteacre, CEO of SBC Communications, are trying to take control of the data flowing over their “pipes,” taking a share of revenues generated by third-parties like Google, Yahoo! and Vonage, to name a few. The carriers are are at sea having over-built their infrastructure for a network dominated by the center, where companies use carrier hosting facilities to talk to carrier customers. That network didn’t happen.
Whiteacre recently grunted the following to 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. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
Now, if you are like me, you’re paying a handsome fee for bandwidth already. Why on earth would Whiteacre think he needs a share of the value created by the services that I access on the Net? As Doc explains, correctly, it’s basically because he and the other carriers are insanely greedy. They over-built bandwidth capacity, from a demand perspective, at least, in the 1990s, and now the price they can get is lower than they would like. That hasn’t prevented SBC and its peers from making money, but they’d like to have oil industry profits, I guess.
Whiteacre and carriers who want to tie the services flowing over their infrastructures are trying to make it happen by embedding themselves in the data they carry. They do this by, among other things, making proprietary protocols mandatory, working to prevent alternative local access such as municipal Wi-Fi and collaborating with other major industries—Hollywood and big media—to enforce end-to-end systems customers must buy and use with no choice. For example, as ZDNet’s David Berlind wrote recently, “As if it isn’t bad enough that certain Congresspeople are looking to stifle fair use rights with broadcast flag related legislation, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are pushing two other fair-use rights limiting bills on Congress.”
The Wall Street Journal today took Whiteacre’s side, arguing:
In an increasingly competitive broadband world, why shouldn’t providers be able to tailor their services as they see fit, with customers choosing to patronize them or not? If a customer wants all 40 megabits of bandwidth for unrestricted use, somebody will provide it for a price. There’s also a technical consideration here: When consumers suddenly have a vaster pipe at their disposal, a lot of giant applications could quickly jam up the Internet unless service providers have an incentive to artfully manage traffic by storing frequently requested material on lots of local servers.
There are two arguments here. First, that competition is good, which is true, though the scenario described by Journal editorial writer Holman Jenkins doesn’t actually involve competition. Instead, we’re talking about bundling, where “basic” services come with a carrier restriction that requires whatever flows over the pipe provide revenue to the carrier, in addition to the payment from the customer who bought the data service in the first place. Someone might offer 40 Mbps for “unrestricted use,” but if the carrier controls the options available to the end user, only the carrier is making choices about the services available.
Second, Jenkins is raising the bogey of an Internet “jam up” because of inefficient allocation of capacity. This is a straw man argument. The early Net had its inefficiencies and the carriers built plenty of capacity to keep up at the backbone, but never built last-mile services that really address people’s needs (I still can’t get fast upstream connectivity without paying for T1 or better level synchronous services). The carriers built a network for big companies at the middle to deliver “stuff” to people, but did not make it possible for people to offer stuff efficiently until blogging, P2P, and Bittorrent came along as workarounds to narrow bandwidth at the edges of the network. Yet, being good at delivering bandwidth is exactly what the carriers are supposed to be. They aren’t, and now hope to prevent people from organizing municipal networks to go around them with laws local and national.
Doc writes, introducing his most important concept to this argument, the metaphors we can use to assure there is a commons, a place, a frontier and a marketplace on/in/of the Net (Doc and I have a long-shared passion for the work of George Lakoff):
The problem is that all of these battling companies–plus the regulators–hate the Net.
Maybe hate is too strong of a word. The thing is, they’re hostile to it, because they don’t get it. Worse, they only get it in one very literal way. See, to the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn’t a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes. Their goal is to beat the other pipe-owners. To do that, they want to sell access and charge for traffic.
There’s nothing wrong with being in the bandwidth business, of course. But some of these big boys want to go farther with it. 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. They see opportunities to sell solutions to industries that rely on the Net–especially their natural partner, the content industry.
They see a problem with freeloaders. On the tall end of the power curve, those ‘loaders are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large sources of the container cargo we call “content”. Out on the long tail, the freeloaders are you and me. The big ‘loaders have been getting a free ride for too long and are going to need to pay. The Information Highway isn’t the freaking interstate. It’s a system of private roads that needs to start charging tolls. As for the small ‘loaders, it hardly matters that they’re a boundless source of invention, innovation, vitality and new business. To the carriers, we’re all still just “consumers”. And we always will be.
The Net always wins when it gets the chance. Carriers wanting to be the choke point must be stopped so the Net has a chance to compete and win.
At the dawn of the consumer Internet, AT&T, Sony and a klatch of companies backed the idea of an intelligent network powered by a proprietary protocol and tools created by General Magic. They spent billions on General Magic, devices that ran General Magic software and network services, and what they described enabling sounds a lot like what we call Web 2.0 today. It was a closed system and the challenge of getting into the developer program, gaining support and resources on the network, were incredibly high, so only the largest software companies stood a chance on the General Magic-enabled network.
The Net, by contrast, was the wild, wild West, unsettled, unclaimed, and it was an inviting and cheap place to build interesting stuff, from tools and features to content. Anyone could try and, as a result, anyone could succeed. The Net won, the General Magic network disappeared, along with every other proprietary network as CompuServe and even AOL embraced Internet Protocol services to a lesser or greater degree—and eventually they all took to IP to the greater degree.
The Net wins through diversity. For Doc, this is the key message, that the structure of the Net must be free of choke points that prevent customers from choices. He writes:
We need to make clear that the Public Domain is the market’s underlying geology–a place akin to the ownerless bulk of the Earth–rather than a public preserve in the midst of private holdings. This won’t be easy, but it can be done.
We need to stress the fact that the primary “end” in the Net’s end-to-end architecture is the individual. The Net’s success is due far more to the freedoms enjoyed by individuals than to the advantages enjoyed by large companies whose existence predates the Net.
We need to remind policy makers that the Net’s biggest success stories–Amazon, Google, eBay and Yahoo–are the stories of Bezos, Page, Brin, Omidyar, Yang and Filo.
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.
Of the metaphors Doc offers, I like “frontier” best: It speaks to the unbridled opportunity for those who choose to go forth and compete. “Commons” is an important element of this vision, but a commons is a shared space where everyone in the community can make use of the resources—a commons is an IP-based world where differentiation takes place through individual servers (or clusters of them) in open communication with end-user devices. These services may be open or closed, kinds of monocultures in competition, but they have equal access to the market, the customer and the market and customer have equally convenient access, with a carrier “tax” on the value created, to those services. The “commons” is a place where many monocultures can be practiced concurrently, a polyculture, the “frontier” is where people can offer and choose their monocultures and thrive based on those choices.
The frontier is open to individuals and companies with economic plans and commercial services, regardless of their size. A choke point on network access points is intolerable but a world where we can choose to “lock in” to a service we trust on the open Net is the bedrock of a competitive marketplace—of products and services as well as ideas.
The feedback I offered to Doc and that I want to add to the discussion here is that he is setting up an us vs. them that assumes the companies on the Net are “better” than other companies. This is a mistake. Companies like Google, Amazon, EBay, Yahoo, Skype, and others are the results of individual entrepreneurial work, certainly, but so are other companies. Alexander Graham Bell founded AT&T, for example.
It’s a mistake to assume a superior moral compass in companies because you know their founders or are their contemporaries and admire them. Doc points to Google’s plan to offer “free” wireless services all over the world—this primarily organizing local access offered by others—as a more enlightened approach to the business of connectivity.
However, Google’s network plans involve users downloading a virtual private network (VPN) client which for all intents and purposes is a choke point at least as onerous as a carrier’s forcing certain services on you through a local physical Internet connection. No VPN client, no connectivity to the network. Google will watch your traffic, target advertising to you, provide a bundle of services through the VPN client, including Google Talk, the would-be Google Office will eventually be part of the offering. It’s a form of tying, the essence of antitrust. Basically, however, your data becomes Google’s in exchange for the access provided through the network it organizes. That may seem tame today, but in a world where data is the raw material of value, it is an intolerably powerful position for a company which has no obligation to anyone other than its shareholders—like other companies, carriers and General Motors.
Google claims to be not evil. By contrasting the Net versus Control-by-Carriers Doc bless the Net competitors based on their DNA, failing to account for the effects of evolution. Google will eventually be completely isolated from its founders. If all we do is move from carriage of bits to carriage of personal data in trade for access to information, we swap one group of tyrants for others. What if we assume, instead, that the place is open, that we must make our choices as customers, mixing the monocultures we engage with (choice, and Google is a monoculture), to maximize our freedom? That covers our relationships with the carriers and the Net players, treating them all as potentially powerful despots.
Yes, I distrust power. Always have, always will. I trust people to make smart decisions about their relationships with power and in commerce. Pretty much every company, given enough power, can exert ferocious influence over the economy and polity. We have to ensure that we do not hand over our future to companies, but keep the power firmly in our own hands. An environment where people in their role as citizens and customers are free to choose to organize themselves and with whom to do business with and the terms they will accept is absolutely essential to society’s continuing evolution.
A network that values the ends of the system—where people decide their own relationships—over any company that purports to provide end-to-end connectivity to people and information (the very definition of what we call Web 2.0) is the egalitarian platform Doc wants, that we need. We don’t need Web 2.0 if it comes with a new generation of potential benevolent despots. If Google wins your trust, lock in to them, but don’t ask me to because you believe they are the right choice for me.
David Isenberg, author of the seminal paper The Rise of the Stupid Network, provides the simplest definition of what we need, network neutrality:
Network neutrality is simple. It is simply content and application agnosticism. When a network operator deliberately introduces an impairment in their network aimed at specific applications or classes of applications, that violates network neutrality.
Blocking Port 25 violates network neutrality. Introducing upstream jitter deliberately to make third-party VOIP impossible violates network neutrality. Detecting Skype and blocking it violates network neutrality. The broadcast flag violates network neutrality. Capping long downloads to discourage TV over IP violates network neutrality. These fail the content and application agnosticism test. But saying “don’t run a server,” in a service agreement is not a violation of network neutrality. It is just garden variety discrimination.
Doc’s piece is an important call to action, but let’s be skeptical of the Net companies, too.
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