[NetBehaviour] Saving the Net
marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Fri Nov 18 21:57:09 CET 2005
Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the
By Doc Searls on Wed, 2005-11-16 02:00. Industry News
We're hearing tales of two scenarios--one pessimistic, one
optimistic--for the future of the Net. If the paranoids are right, the
Net's toast. If they're not, it will be because we fought to save it,
perhaps in a new way we haven't talked about before. Davids, meet your
This is a long essay. There is, however, no limit to how long I could
have made it. The subjects covered here are no less enormous than the
Net and its future. Even optimists agree that the Net's future as a free
and open environment for business and culture is facing many threats. We
can't begin to cover them all or cover all the ways we can fight them. I
believe, however, that there is one sure way to fight all of these
threats at once, and without doing it the bad guys will win. That's what
this essay is about.
Here's a brief outline of the article. If you want to go straight to the
solution, skip to the third section:
Scenario I: The Carriers Win
Scenario II: The Public Workaround
Scenario III: Fight with Words and Not Just Deeds
Scenario I: The Carriers Win
Be afraid. Be very afraid. --Kevin Werbach.
Are you ready to see the Net privatized from the bottom to the top? Are
you ready to see the Net's free and open marketplace sucked into a pit
of pipes built and fitted by the phone and cable companies and run
according to rules lobbied by the carrier and content industries?
Do you believe a free and open market should be "Your choice of walled
garden" or "Your choice of silo"? That's what the big carrier and
content companies believe. That's why they're getting ready to fence off
And we're not stopping it.
With the purchase and re-animation of AT&T's remains, the collection of
former Baby Bells called SBC will become the largest communications
company in the US--the new Ma Bell. Verizon, comprised of the old GTE
plus MCI and the Baby Bells SBC didn't grab, is the new Pa Bell. That's
one side of the battlefield, called The Regulatory Environment. Across
the battlefield from Ma and Pa Bell are the cable and entertainment
giants: Comcast, Cox, TimeWarner and so on. Covering the battle are the
business and tech media, which love a good fight.
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.
"Piracy" is a bigger issue to the cargo sources than to the carriers. To
the carriers, "fighting piracy" is a service offering as well as a lever
on regulators to give carriers more control of the pipes. "You want us
to help you fight piracy?", the transport companies say to the content
companies. "Okay, let's deal." And everybody else's freedoms--to invent,
to innovate, to do business, to take advantage of free markets and to
make free culture--get dealt away.
The carriers have been lobbying Congress for control of the Net since
Bush the Elder was in office. Once they get what they want, they'll put
up the toll booths, the truck scales, the customs checkpoints--all in a
fresh new regulatory environment that formalizes the container cargo
business we call packet transport. This new environment will be built to
benefit the carriers and nobody else. The "consumers"? Oh ya, sure:
they'll benefit too, by having "access" to all the good things that
carriers ship them from content providers. Is there anything else? No.
Crocodile grins began to grow on the faces of carriers as soon as it
became clear that everything we call "media" eventually would flow
through their pipes. All that stuff we used to call TV, radio,
newspapers and magazines will just be "content" moving through the
transport layer of the pipe system they own and control. Think it's a
cool thing that TV channels are going away? So do the carriers. The
future à lá carte business of media will depend on one medium alone: the
Net. And the Net is going to be theirs.
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. The owners of those pipes have a duty
to their stockholders to make the most of the privileged position
they've been waiting to claim ever since they got blind-sided, back in
the 80s and 90s. (For an excellent history of how the European PTTs got
snookered by the Net and the Web, see Paul F. Kunz' Bringing the World
Wide Web to America.) They have assets to leverage, dammit, and now they
Does it matter that countless markets flourish in the wide spaces opened
by agreements and protocols that thrive at the grace of carriage? Or
that those markets are threatened by new limits, protections and costs
imposed at the pipe level?
Thus, the Era of Net Facilitation will end. The choke points are in the
pipes, the permission is coming from the lawmakers and regulators, and
the choking will be done. No more free rides, folks. Time to pay. It's
called creating scarcity and charging for it. The Information Age may be
here, but the Industrial Age is hardly over. In fact, there is no sign
it will ever end.
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