The Web — not democratic, but open

by Mathew on May 29, 2006 · 13 comments

Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has a post in which he questions the somewhat gushing tone of an op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend about net neutrality. Scott says that his problem with the piece is that the great promise of a democratic Web is an illusion.

The problem with the democratic web ideal is that no one really owns their own press — not me, not the rest of the blogosphere, not Yahoo, not Google. Why? Because none of us owns our own internet access.

Since the cable companies and telecom companies own the Internet, he continues, then it can’t really be truly democratic — in the sense of being an instrument of the people — unless Congress explicitly says that Internet access is a public utility. Part of what Scott seems upset about is that fuzzy terms like “net neutrality” don’t really help the discussion, and I can sympathize with him there. It doesn’t help that the telecom industry has cleverly called its counter-campaign “Hands Off The Internet,” so both sides are effectively claiming that they want things left as they are and the other side wants to change them.

As I put it to Scott in a comment, however, I think the telcos are guilty of moving the goalposts, as I have mentioned before. According to a recent book called Broadband Scandal, the telcos got all kinds of favourable deals from the U.S. government a decade or so ago, in part by promising that everyone would soon have a super-fast connection capable of handling phone calls, TV-style programming and so on. Now it seems as though they are asking for the ability to charge more for delivering what should already be here.

In addition, as Craig Newmark of Craigslist mentioned in his recent debate with a telecom lobbyist in the Wall Street Journal, network experts say that there is still a large quantity of “dark” fiber out there (some of which Google is rumoured to have been buying), which would tend to refute the argument that the Internet is somehow getting “full.”

In any case, I would disagree with Scott’s premise: it’s not so much about democracy as it is about open access — and the telecoms are quite used to dealing with such things, since the telephone network was effectively treated as a public good through “common carrier” legislation. All the net neutrality folks are talking about is doing the same thing for the Internet. If that requires treating the Internet like a utility, then so be it.

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