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The Internet – Not Yours to Take

I will continue to rage against the Net Neutrality machine and the Digital Elite who feed it.

Doc Searls of the Linux Journal writes on Net Neutrality:

How about framing the Net as rivers and oceans, which nobody owns and which float everybody’s boat? Or how about framing the Net as public land? How about framing the Net as the “Information Highway” that became a cliche (without ever quite happening) a decade ago? To get what I mean by that, consider what the US would be like today if we hadn’t created the Interstate Highway System fifty years ago. What would the lack of Interstate Highway infrastructure have cost us by now? Where would Germany be without the Autobahn? How about Switzerland without its rail system? How about any great city without its international airports?

There is a big difference between the rivers and oceans and the Internet. The former were created by God. I realize and respect many do not feel the rivers and oceans were created by God. The point is they have no owner who actively enforced property rights.

The Internet infrastructure was created by man, namely investors. In this way the Internet is more like a canal, dug by someone who put the risk capital forward to make it happen. It is not yours to take.

Public land is a better analogy. Most public land is public because the Federal or State government is the original owner, and was deeded the property by claim, purchase, or conquest. Other property is purchased for the public good, using the common law concepts of Eminent Domain. Other times it is expropriated, where property is taken without compensation, such as the economic loss experienced by timber owners unlucky enough to have the spotted owl protected by the Endangered Species Act on their land.

We had an Interstate Highway before Eisenhower’s plan. It was called the railroad. The government decided to enter the road business under the disguise of providing connectivity for national security. I’d love to see a chart that compared the market capitalization of the railroads vs. national highway expenditures from 1930 to 1980. You would see that the railroads failed to compete with the government, and Uncle Sam effectively put the railroads out of business.

Those in favor of Net Neutrality should think in terms of Eminent Domain. What are you willing to pay the carriers to remove their right to use their networks as they see fit?

If you are not willing to do this, then prepare to fund a parallel public infrastructure. This would be analogous to building an Interstate Highway System adjacent to pre-existing toll roads. Some municipalities are doing this already.

However, the last thing people should consider is expropriating the assets of the telecom industry. Nationalizing the use of these assets without compensation is something that Lenin himself once spoke of, when he advocated government control of the “Commanding Heights” of an economy — steel, coal and railroads. This is not a future I want for our nation.


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  1. “The Internet infrastructure was created by man, namely investors. In this way the Internet is more like a canal, dug by someone who put the risk capital forward to make it happen.”

    How do you square this viewpoint with the fact that the heart of the Internet was developed by the U.S. government, using public funds?

    All the core work for what eventually became the Internet was done by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the 1960s and 1970s in the process of building the ARPAnet. The Internet was an extension of ARPAnet that allowed networks controlled by private operators, like the telecoms, to link up to it by using a standard protocol — TCP/IP, also developed using government money (from DARPA to Bolt Beranek & Newman). These operators connected their networks to the Internet in order to profit from the investment in interconnectivity made by DARPA.

    In other words, the telecoms put no real money at risk in the venture. They spent money to lay cable, sure; but they did not do the R&D to connect their networks together — that work was done under goverment contract, using taxpayer funds. Had it not been done, the telecoms would likely still be merrily chugging along with non-interoperable systems — or systems with limited, fee-encumbered interoperability. This might have been a tidy little business for them, but it would in no way resemble what we know today as the Internet.

    Given that U.S. taxpayers essentially presented the telecoms with this enormous opportunity to profit, why should they not have an interest in ensuring that its core principles are respected by all comers? Ford doesn’t get to set its own special speed limit for Ford cars on public highways, after all.

    “If you are not willing to do this, then prepare to fund a parallel public infrastructure.”

    We already did that; it’s called the Internet, and the telcos have chosen to connect to it. If they don’t like how it operates, they are free to put some money at risk, build their own network, and run it how they want. Just don’t call it the Internet.

    Posted by Jason Lefkowitz | April 12, 2006, 4:09 PM