Freeing the Internet

Some interesting pushback from my post on Thursday. Sean Gallagher over at Rant Central has back-ranted my rant:

Well, then, the Eisenhowerian glove has been laid down. Is the government our last refuge from the opression of capital? As the government tries every day to slough off its responisbilities to the private sector, has the time come to reverse the trend?

I don’t think nationalization (that’s what it would really be) is the answer. I think proper stewardship is the answer, and the government has to take a more active role in kicking the ass of ICANN and its vendors when they step out of line with the public interest.

Since the Internet extends outside the US borders, I suspect we might have some problems putting it under government control. What we really need is an Internet like the US interstate highway system–built with federal money, the use of which is governed by regulations designed to promote public interest; but constructed, policed and maintained by the localities it passes through.

If the Commerce Department were to take over the registry of domain names, it would probably treat it like it does the Patent and Trademark Office–as a piggy bank to raid for other projects. What has to happen is that ICANN needs to be made publicly accountable, and made to reclaim its responsibility to oversee the master DNS, supported by royalties from multiple registrars and contract revenue from the federal government based on its adherence to public policy.

Sean’s absolutely right, and my rant should have been more clear. We need less Internet design, not more. I’m not advocating a 50s-era Highway Trust for funding Internet packet forwarding. What we need is a set of prohibitions on what we can’t do to the Internet. Perhaps this is another expression of my Minimalism screed of last month.

Rollin’ Down the Highway

I really like Sean’s Interstate Highway analogy, and it separately occurred to me when speaking with David Weinberger on the phone Friday afternoon. We spoke of I-90, running through the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where David lives. It’s also the Massachusetts Turnpike, where they charge you a toll when you leave it, often by scanning a Fast Lane sensor on your car. It may help to think of our little Internet packets as cars appearing and leaving the Internet randomly, pursuant to the owners’ whims.

The Mass Pike really doesn’t care which car-packets enter and leave its collection system, as long as the fare is paid. The cars paying cash are like analog phone calls on a switched phone circuit. The carrier knows nothing about the who or the why of the traversal except its physical start and end. It knows more about Fast Lane cars, since it has a contractual relationship with each owner, limiting the rights of the parties to harm each other.

Presumably the Interstate Highway Commission also has contractual arrangements with the Mass Pike Authority. The tolls are charged because Massachusetts stretch of I-90 receives no federal or state funding (according to their web site), so it can charge tolls on the I-90 traffic that would not dream of paying a toll west of the Mississippi. However, there are certainly constraints on the Mass Pike Authority’s freedom to impede travel by people who are expecting an I-90 level of service, quite separate from any overarching notions of personal freedom. The Feds and the Mass Pike Authority might have a little chat if the Commonwealth started detaining travelers for 24 hours every 100 miles while examining their license at a Patrol HQ next to a $350 per night motel operated by the state. It would probably be a Federal case but not a drawn-out Constitutional battle before the Supreme Court. Contract law can be a lovely environment when you want to get to the heart of a disappointment.

Most of the “improvements” we might make to the Internet are degradations as significant as new toll booths or mandatory overnight stays. The reason such upgrades are suspect is because we really prefer the 1995 Internet to the one that powerful interests are now imagining. Our illusion is that the Internet is an unmanaged pipe, like a water main, into which we pour information and inquiries, and out of which we drink news and answers.

A Straight Wire with Gain

In the world of Hi-Fi, the perfect amplifier is called “a straight wire with gain”: no noise, distortion or unpleasantness, just a pure signal made strong enough to energize loudspeakers. That’s what we expect from Interstate highways and the Internet. The trick for the Internet is to instantiate a way of dealing that restricts the telecom companies from turning packet forwarding into a protection racket (“It’ll cost you to enjoy our new services, like guaranteed delivery”). Better they should handle it forever as a commodity routing project. Like the Mass Pike Authority.

I just didn’t “get” Lawrence Lessig’s cautionary statements that the Internet as we know it is at risk, presented in CODE and Other Laws of Cyberspace almost four years ago, and his every action since:

“Lessig’s chief message is aimed at those who view the Internet as some kind of democratic wonderland, a place of unfettered free speech, business competition, and creativity. Set the euphoria aside, he warns. Government and industry are already stripping privacy, free speech, and other liberties from the Internet in order to suit the needs of online commerce.”
   
      –The Net at what price? Aaron Zitner, The Boston Globe, March 19, 2000

As I wrote yesterday, the concern so eloquently described by Lessig and Searls has just been reinforced, even more urgently, by John Walker and Ernest Partridge.

My concern this Presidential election cycle is that the free trade of ideas and their stakeholders may be as threatening to politicians as to entrenched commercial interests. That’s why I’ve established the Free the Internet Contribution page at Dean for America. Dean is the only candidate with a vested interest in a free and open Internet, so he’s the only candidate we can trust to defend it against the establishment. If elected, he will see an open Internet as his best hope for re-election, so he’s our best hope for the Internet to which we’d like to become accustomed.
I suggest that we pay the equivalent of $2.74 per day for the next year to secure the Internet for ourselves, our kids and theirs. Aha! That’s $1,000. Fair enough. It’s a grand cause, worth a grand.

Starving Student Backlash

Jefferson Provost suggests that I’m impeding contributions:

Hi Britt,

Great idea, but I think you may be alienating your potential contributors. Setting the nominal contribution at $1000 and then saying, “contribute as an indicator of you clue inventory.” It makes it sound as if those who contribute much less than that are clueless. I’m guessing that’s probably not your intention, but it really makes it sound like you’d rather not have small contributions.

I’m a graduate student, and $1000 is 2/3 of a month’s salary. I sure as hell don’t pay $3/day for coffee. Why would I want to contribute anything, when you make it sound like those who can’t kick in your (totally unrealistic) nominal contribution are clueless? You should be saying “Every little bit helps!”

Jeff

The ringing truth that reinforces Jeff’s point is that this is the first time in several Presidential cycles that the youth vote will be significant. That will probably be the greatest deciding factor in this cycle.

Jeff, my intent is not to discouraged your demographic, the most important in this race, and I think Zephyr, Josh and Zack would concur. What I’m trying to do is to get my generation of its ass and throw in some serious shwag. There are a lot of us who talk about these issues and have strong opinions. I’m trying to get us to vote with relevant dollars. Jim Moore has written elegantly that the NeoCons are getting a hell of a bargain. They throw in about $200 million every four years and then get to play with about $6 trillion dollars until the next time. Jim rightly calls their investment “chump change“.

The question on the table is whether Non-Repubs are willing to make those kind of investments. We’re often long on rhetoric and short on contributions. Do you suppose that’s part of the same restraint that causes Democrats to be so much less strident in calling bullshit on the Repubs? Jim Moore suggests that we should be able to inspire one million people willing to throw in $1,000 to create a Dean war chest sufficient to transform American Politics. Righteous math, that.

Jeff, the news I’m trying to add is that the precious Internet we currently plan to leave to your generation could be as compromised as Our Bill of Rights has been since 9/11.

“The price of freedom is vigilance”, indeed. And some real cash once in a while. I hope some people like me choose to set an example for people like Jeff. This is the quarter to put in the cash and to make our statement.

4:47:24 AM    

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