Free the ‘Net!

Is the health of the Internet your personal issue?
If you agree with the premises of this essay, it’ll cost you.

Publicize the Internet

When you make a public good private, it’s said that you privatize it. So if you rescue a public good for the continued use of the public, doesn’t that mean that you publicize it?

It’s almost too late to publicize the Internet, because the Dean campaign’s grassroots success has tipped off the players who have the most to lose from an open and free Internet.

  • Powerful forces will profit if the Internet is privatized
  • Companies and governments that benefit from a privatized Internet will support this “improvement”
  • Others will be frozen out of the standards process designed to “upgrade” the Internet
  • The only force strong enough to keep the Internet free is the police power of the U.S. Government
  • Which of the current 11 candidates do you most want in command of Federal Internet policy?

I have a single hot-button issue: the Internet.
If the Internet remains healthy, all other problems will be solved.
Without a healthy Internet, our only reliable free press is gone.

The Internet must be publicized because it’s way too vulnerable to privatization. It’s encroached upon more each week, with the latest assault being the awful Verisign dereliction of its stewardship of .com and .net domains. We know that Microsoft will do everything it can to make the Internet its private sandbox. Telecoms have proven that they will do anything they can to avoid commoditization. The only force on earth that can stop it, sad to say, is the police power of the state. Lilly-livered libertarians like me hate that truth, but truth it is.

John Walker, founder of AutoDesk and now operating Fourmilab from Switzerland, has published The Digital Imprimatur (thanks, Jim Warren). Walker’s a flaming libertarian who called his US Passport “the blue passport of slavery” and emigrated to Switzerland. It’s a long, well-researched and scary document, an instruction manual really, describing how the Internet can be privatized, one cynical step at a time. He wrote it not to enable privatization, but as a security expert might describe a Windows flaw in order to inspire someone to develop a patch:

“Over the last two years I have become deeply and increasingly pessimistic about the future of liberty and freedom of speech, particularly in regard to the Internet. This is a complete reversal of the almost unbounded optimism I felt during the 1994-1999 period when public access to the Internet burgeoned and innovative new forms of communication appeared in rapid succession. In that epoch I was firmly convinced that universal access to the Internet would provide a countervailing force against the centralisation and concentration in government and the mass media which act to constrain freedom of expression and unrestricted access to information. Further, the Internet, properly used, could actually roll back government and corporate encroachment on individual freedom by allowing information to flow past the barriers erected by totalitarian or authoritarian governments and around the gatekeepers of the mainstream media.

Ernest Partridge has also done the math (thanks, Peter Kaminski):

It is not too soon for progressives to ponder, “what would we do without the internet?” for it is folly for us to take the internet for granted.

For consider: The right wing has captured AM talk radio, cable (so-called) “news,” and six Bush-friendly “conservative” corporations control virtually all commercial broadcasting and publishing.  The only remaining free and diverse mass media “marketplace of ideas” is the Internet. It would be naive to think that the corporate establishment does not also have its sights set on the internet.

No doubt about it: the progressive internet is a threat, for it has recently displayed considerable political clout. The internet promoted and coordinated the international anti-war protests that brought millions into the streets. It cost Trent Lott his majority leadership in the Senate. It has been the primary stimulus to the Howard Dean campaign. And it was a prominent source of the public indignation that led to the Congressional overturning of the FCC ownership ruling. As ever more citizens lose confidence in the credibility of the corporate media, they are turning to the internet, and through it to international and independent sources of reliable news of the world and of their own country and politics. It is a trend that is continuing and accelerating.

Surely, the grand Poobahs of the corporate-GOP-media complex will not sit still for this!
But what can they do about it? Unfortunately, there is much they can do.

So libertarians and progressives agree that this danger is real. Our Clue du Jour is that Howard Dean’s Internet-based candidacy has raised the stakes and the urgency. Only the government can keep the government from selling off the Internet.

This is not promising.

Golden Days

How important is the 1995 Internet to you? Do you remember those innocent, exhilarating times? The Internet was going to change everything. Information which had always wanted to be free was free at last. We imagined a World of Ends, even though we didn’t yet think of it that way. We envisioned friction-free markets, permission-free economics, copyright-neutral information sharing, a wide-open world alliance welcoming anyone who wanted to be part of the conversation. Even Paul Simon was briefly optimistic enough to imagine an affiliation of millionaires and billionaires as a liberating force:

And I believe these are the days of lasers in the jungle, lasers in the jungle somewhere.
Staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby, t
hese are the days of miracle and wonder. This is the long distance call.  The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, the way we look to us all. The way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky. These are the days of miracle and wonder and don’t cry baby, don’t cry.
Don’t cry.

We still love that innocent 1995 Internet, because it’s what the Internet wants to be, and the tool that we the people have needed for 5,000 years. Sure, we enjoy the great bells and whistles developed over the last 8 years, and the thriving open sour
ce development environment. But above all, we bloggers and bloggees want the freedom and liberty and openness that the 1995 Internet represented.

Does Dean Really Matter?

Like our 1995 conception of the Internet, the Howard Dean Campaign is Capraesque. It embodies all the innocent, wide-eyed wonder of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Howard Dean is the Jimmy Stewart of candidates. He really believes what he says and the campaign has been built on the free-flowing energy of people who want nothing more than hope. He’s a guy from a rich Republican family who worked for a year as an investment banker–the default family talent–and left it to practice medicine with his wife in Vermont. Upon moving to Washington, the new First Lady intends to simply move her clinic and become the First Doctor, practicing medicine in D.C. Imagine: a working family in the White House.

The Dean campaign recapitulates the 1995 Internet’s notion of Doing the Right Thing. People are working there for peanuts or less because of their principles and not their politics. Hanging with them, as I was privileged to do last week, you never get the feeling that the people there are lining up jobs in the West Wing. Surely some are, but that’s not the vibe. You have never witnessed such an ingenuous, open workplace. A startup without the bad parts.

The reason that Dean matters for me is that he’s the only candidate free of control from current power centers, which is why he is the only one we can be sure will protect the Internet. His campaign has fired a warning shot across the bow of the ship of state, and the ship’s officers aren’t likely to leave that vulnerability in place for the next engagement.


The current Internet’s structure allows a candidate like Dean to grab the electorate’s attention and route around the special interests. The concerned scientists, engineers, lawyers and dilettantes now warning about Internet privatization know that the Net accidentally created the means, at last, to break the cycle of power, corruption and fear that has always subjugated most humans. By tuning the Net’s infrastructure to accept only “authorized” packets, terrorist activity can be eliminated.

Sound alarmist? Let’s ask Searls the Infrastructure Doctor:

“The Net’s end-to-end nature is so severely anathema to cable and telco companies that they have done everything they can to make the Net as controlled and asymmetrical as possible. They want the Net to be more like television, and to a significant degree, they’ve succeeded. Most DSL and cable broadband customers take it for granted that downstream speeds are faster than upstream speeds, that they can’t operate servers out of their houses and that the only e-mail addresses they can use are ones that end with the name of their telephone or cable company.

And why not? These companies “own” the Net, don’t they? Well, no, they don’t. They only “provide” it–critical difference.

The gradual destruction of the Net is getting political protection by two strong conservative value systems. One values success, and the other values property.
                                           – Linux Journal, 7/22/03

Doc quotes Lawrence Lessig, the Net’s Patron Advocate:

At the same time that media concentration restrictions are being removed, such that three companies will own everything, so too are neutrality restrictions for the network being eliminated, so that those same three companies–who also will control broadband access–are totally free to architect broadband however they wish. “The Internet that is to be the savior is a dying breed. The end-to-end architecture that gave us its power will, in effect, be inverted. And so the games networks play to benefit their own will bleed to this space too.”
–”But there’s the Internet

You do realize that you’re a potential terrorist, don’t you? Your thirst for freedom is dangerous to the power elite, but manageable. Howard Dean has made a free and open Internet truly terrifying.

This is a wake-up call.
If you share experts’ concerns about the Net’s vulnerability,
It’s time to belly up to the bar.
Unless you’d rather wait to see how it all works out.

Fear of Courage

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wondered if I’d have the guts to diss the English in a 1775 coffee shop. How would I have conducted myself in mid-thirties Germany or later, in occupied France? Would I have stood up and attacked McCarthy when he was the Ashcroft of the fifties? Those were all opportunities to say something unpopular at the risk of persecution and ridicule. Leave aside whether I’d have dumped tea in the harbor or hidden Anne Frank. I have simply hoped I’d have the courage to take a stand surrounded by neighbors telling me to sit down and shut up.

This is my stand.

The Internet can, starting in 2005, return to its 1995 level of invulnerability. Or it can be cynically eroded to a broadcast medium by powerful forces energized by the Dean close call. The choice is ours, but most of us will behave like most middle-class middle-thirties Germans.

Each of us must decide if we’re a middle-class middle-thirties German. I can’t take the chance, so I choose to be an excitable alarmist. Better that than a passive, compliant, uncomprehending consumer of services and “content” delivered through a TV labeled as a computer.

A Virgin’s Plea

Like so many Dean supporters, I’ve never done anything with politics, except given money to the Repubs when strong-armed by business associates. But the Internet is the right cause and it turns out that this week is the last minute.

This is the quarter that can demonstrate to the public and the press that the Internet candidacy is serious and inevitable. The leading Dem candidates are inside-the-beltway pros looking to put another notch in the handle of their ego. If one of them sneaks past Dean and beats a declining Bush, the Internet is just as vulnerable as if Rove keeps calling the shots.

So I’ve put up a Free the Internet donation site at Dean for America. That’s a big step for a guy like me. My habit is to sit on the sidelines and pontificate on how things ought to be done. I’ve primed my Free the Internet contribution site with $1,000. That sounds grand, but it’s only about a year’s worth of designer coffee or the tariff for a broadband blogging presence.

If you’re reading this, that’s the level you need to be standing up for. $2.74 a day. Do the math. Actually it’s 69 cents a day per presidential election. That’s why Free the Internet’s goal is $100,000

So it’s up to us to put up some chump change that looks like serious money. Your limit is $2,000. Give ’til it feels good. Contribute as an indicator of your clue inventory.

  • If you comprehend the threat, you know it’s real.
  • If you understand this race, you know that just one candidate stands to gain from a free Internet and all the others can only lose.
  • Free the Internet!

A Warning

I’m about to be a pain in the ass. If I have your email address or phone number, I’ll be reminding you how important it is to have a President who depends on a free and open Internet and how dangerous it is to have one who is threatened by openness.

And I can find you on the web. I don’t know why, but there are 5,160 links to this blog, 1,970 to Xpertweb and 10,600 to my name. If you’ve done me the kindness of linking to me, I’ll return the favor by tracking you down and telling you the Free Internet story. I’m making a project of buttonholing the so-called digerati like Diogenes seeking an honest man. But I’m looking for comprehending people, so enjoy the compliment and open your wallet, this won’t hurt much.

I’ll also lobby the Dean campaign to make a free and open Internet a top issue in the campaign.

It’s a binary choice. If you feel the Internet is immune to powerful interests, then it doesn’t matter who sits in the Oval Office. But if you understand that the Internet is the single greatest threat to establishment power, you’ll do more than contribute. You’ll become a pain in the ass too. Or would you rather order another stein?

Free the Internet!

12:26:30 PM    

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