The Tangled Web of Net Neutrality

In the varied comings-to-grips with the FCC’s recent net neutrality ruling, Steve Wozniak at the Atlantic offers the most historically telling perspective:

As a young engineer I got an impulse to start a Dial-a-Joke in the San Jose/San Francisco area. I was aware of such humor services in other countries, such as Australia. This idea came from my belief in laughter. I could scarcely believe that I was the first person to create such a simple service in my region. Why was I the first? This was 1972 and it was illegal in the U.S. to use your own telephone. It was illegal in the U.S. to use your own answering machine. Hence it also virtually impossible to buy or own such devices. We had a monopoly phone system in our country then.

Wozniak goes on to describe the genesis of his bracing, boomer-era brand of information libertarianism, instilled in him by his Eisenhower-Republican father: the home is a sanctuary of private action, while the “purest things in the universe”—space, the Moon, the electromagnetic spectrum—were free and open.

But the most useful commentary I’ve found on the FCC ruling comes from Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who wrote the book on Information-age network regulation (well, one of them), and is credited with coining the term “net neutrality.” At Tech Crunch, Wu writes that ruling represents government taking its favored regulatory approach of “kicking the can,” passing on solid rule-making in favor of a web of vague warnings and contradictory edicts that will take years of litigation to sort out. Wu concludes that the net effect, so to speak, is—not surprisingly—to protect an emerging status quo:

Believe it or not, there is a meaning to this madness, for we can predict the effects of the uncertainty. I suggest it will confirm present trends. The uncertainty supports a continued openness on the wired internet, while also sanctioning a wireless internet that is semi-closed and dominated by commercial content. In the language of my book, The Master Switch, the rules may slow the cycle of consolidation on the wireline Internet, while simultaneously speeding it up in wireless. At a deeper level it suggests a coming age of Two Kingdoms: an Internet experience ever more divided by whether you pick up your laptop or your phone.

The emergence of two very different paradigms for the sharing of information, wired and wireless, looks like a Very Bad Thing. But as Wu points out, the emergence of strengthened corporate control over the flow of information has less to do with communications technologies or platforms than the market-based conceptual arena of “app thinking”:

To change current trends would have required a very clear and aggressive ban on multiple forms of discrimination. Instead, the uncertainty confirms a world where favoritism operates not at the network level, but at the level of the physical device, operating system, and arcane areas like app store placement. This is a game that Google, a staunch advocate of wireline Net Neutrality, plays pretty well. But it is Apple who is, of course, the master here. Notice that when Apple decided to block WikiLeaks, it didn’t block the website, but rather declared that the App didn’t meet developer guidelines. If, instead, partner AT&T had blocked wikileaks.ch, all hell would have broken lose.

As apps increasingly come to represent channels of information availability, it will be hard to keep the companies who own the app markets from exercising control over those channels as commodities.

Wu suggests that the wireline web will remain a clement habitat for the kind of Internet most of us value: the free Internet, the home of the consensual, the collaborative, and the amateur. Call it the Woz Web, maybe. But it seems evident that the FCC ruling, while Kafkaesque in its vagueness, represents an extended pathway to the enclosure of the commons—the fencing-in of the electromagnetic spectrum. Space and the moon aren’t covered in the new ruling; we’re left to wonder when their turn will come.

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