The Internet as We Know It Is an Accident, but the Design Isn’t. For the Telcos, It’s Just an Excuse.

Earlier this week Tim Berners-Lee, the architecht of the world-wide web, posted a short essay on network neutrality. Like other wise commentators such as Vint Cerf and Larry Lessig, Berners-Lee argues that without net neutrality being law the US’s dominant telephone companies will inhibit the future introduction of innovative internet technologies all in service of protecting and privileging the delivery of content they own or control.

His point is simple:

When, seventeen years ago, I designed the Web, I did not have to ask anyone’s permission. The new application rolled out over the existing Internet without modifying it.

The most important point to this argument is that the internet as it was designed is utterly neutral with regard to the data that moves over it. As long as you can break the data into packets, it will move over the internet without regard to what that data ultimately represents.

It’s a simple, yet powerful concept that means the architects of the original DARPAnet didn’t have to even think about the web, streaming media or instant messaging. Their future invention was neither preordained nor prohibited.

We take this notion for granted, but compare the internet to the phone system and this simple idea becomes even more salient. In stark contrast to the internet, until the break up of AT&T in the 1980s, there were major restrictions on the types of devices and kinds of information that could be moved over the nation’s telephone lines. In fact, prior to the 80s, you couldn’t legally connect a telephone to your phone jack that wasn’t designed, built or specifically authorized by AT&T and the FCC.

That’s at least one factor why devices like fax machines (invented in the 1960s) and computer modems didn’t gain any real widespread use outside of large corporations until after the AT&T break up.

And yet, the most ironic thing about the telephone companies’ arguments against network neutrality law is the fact that these companies have never really been all that interested in the internet to begin with. There are only two reasons why the likes of AT&T (the former SBC) and Verizon have found interest in rolling out broadband networks in the last four years or so. First, they got their asses beat by cable modems which rolled out broadband ahead of the telcos. Second, they figured out they can use broadband lines to become cable TV providers.

On the second point, rolling out broadband internet is only an excuse to put down high-speed lines in order to offer profitable cable TV services that they exclusively control. Simply offering competing cable service is not enough of a bargain for the legislators or the public, internet is what sweetens the deal.

But why should we trust them? These same telephone companies made the promise back in 1996 that if they got the deregulation they were asking for they would roll out 45 megabit connections to the internet to households across the US. Well, they got their deregulation, but do you know anyone with a 45 megabit connection? Heck, I’d kill just to get 1 megabit upstream.

Now they’re just making a new promise: “This time we’ll really roll out 45 megabits, but we’ll need that national cable franchise first.”

The internet is just an excuse to AT&T and Verizon. They’re calls of “just trust us” over network neutrality are like the demands of a hostage taker. What they’re really saying: “If you don’t give us the cable franchise and lay off network neutrality, then say goodbye to getting any better internet service anytime soon. You have to trust us because we refuse to accept any provision that would require us to actually roll out the service we promise. You have to trust us because we’re not going to give you any choice. ”

AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth and Quest don’t give one damn about the design of the internet, even if it’s the source of their very corporate survival.

The control these companies have now is not a natural thing, it is not a preordained outcome. It’s the result of law and policy that have handed this control over to them, with nary a responsibility. Sure, they want it to continue, and seize control over more. But they don’t have a right to it, and it doesn’t have to continue. And we might just have enough influence to stem the tide.


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