August 20, 2009

Guest Post: “The Argument for Network Neutrality (a.k.a. ‘The Commons’)”

By Jeff Gerhardt, Ronin Geek

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerhardt, whose early career found him helping midwife the Internet in its ARPA days, says that attempts to portray Net Neutrality as “socialist” are distortions of history. In fact, he writes: The Internet is by nature and intent open-source, peer-driven, fundamentally entrepreneurial, and thus Net Neutrality is as American as the First Amendment. The real redistribution of wealth, he says, was the giveaway of telecom infrastructure to commercial monopolies, to the detriment of “entrepreneurial America.”]

To those of you who do not want to see the Internet become TV-2, I am once again in the position where I feel I need to remind people of the history of all of this Internet stuff, as a primer to the issue of Network Neutrality and its importance to every American.

I get to do that because I was there at the beginning.

As a college student (early 1970s) I was a grunt pulling infrastructure cable that was used on ARPA network segments. Yup. I knew the ARPA guys. They were my geek gods before I ever saw a personal computer.

I have met and discussed the Net with Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, Bob Braden, Jon Postel and other members of the Network Working Group headed by Steve Crocker (Mr TCP/IP himself). I still get an excitement each year on the anniversary of RFC-1 day.

Although, unlike some politicians that will go unnamed, I did not invent the Internet — man, did it change the course of my life. I am a rare breed, people like me are honest to goodness Internet Dinosaurs.

A few years later I was working for Compuserve as a SYSOP of a Tandy SIG. A few years after that I opened up a couple BBS systems. A few years after that some fellow BBS operators (and I) got together to split the cost on a UUNET account, so we could do that electronic mail thing. And eventually some of us got together to put together some of the first Internet Service Providers in the world.

So, I was often in the room, when some of the fundamental technology that created the >>commercial phase<< of the Internet WAS INVENTED. The guy in the office next to me invented what I believe was the first multi-domain Web hosting server (yes — virtual domain Web hosting) in the world (with a single IP number).

I was part of a meeting that white-boarded out VDS technology that made regional and national ISPs a viable business model.

My buddy Kevin and I, well if we did not invent something, we were often in the mix of a first practical demonstration of a technologies viability.

I was a part of an alliance of ISPs that were the first to deploy DSL and Internet over cable solutions. And let me tell you, in 1996 we (the U.S.) were leading the world in broadband deployment and innovation and the phone and cable companies had almost nothing to do with it.

That fact was true until September of 1997, when the Cable and Phone Companies STOPPED Broadband Deployment in its tracks by reinterpreting the 1996 Telco Act as giving them power to restrict broadband deployment.

Let me tell you something about all that history.

* * * * *

Never, not once from the ARPA days, through the “BBS & online community” days and up through the ISP era, was the concept of Network Neutrality EVER questioned.

PEERING was at the heart of the Internet model and equality was the bedrock. It was unthinkable to question.

And to boot, it was far from “socialist” as it created the largest economic explosion in the history of the United States. Please — when you see your local representatives, remind them of that.

But what was unique about the Internet as “The Commons,” as my friend Doc Searls liked to call it, was that it was down to its basic elements VERY AMERICAN. It was all about freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of opportunity and a fundamentally fair and level playing field.

So to say that Network Neutrality is “socializing the Internet” is a total fraud. It is in one word (and you can quote me) “CRAP”.

Now, removing Network Neutrality is a form of socialism, that of a corporate/government social symbiosis; or a “Corporatocracy” as the wonks would call it.

Redistribution of wealth as an act of socialism; is not any different if you are taxing the rich to provide service for the poor as it is to take property from the public at large and give it to corporations.

With the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, it was evident that the phone industry was in more trouble then even the smartest economists predicted. The ISP industry was handing the combined telecommunications industry its lunch.

Smaller, more responsive to public demand, LOCAL companies were taking a larger and larger marketshare. And, with the advent of large-scale IP networks, it became apparent to anyone with a brain that phone companies had outlived their useful purpose.

At the start of 1997 it looked like the only thing that would save the phone companies was re-regulation. But the public had been made a promise of cheaper, faster and more diverse telecommunications options; so re-regulation was not an option.

I ask, anyone’s cable or phone bill gone down in the last 12 years?

The response by the telecommunications industry was a period of time when ethics and attention to law simply vanished. The stories of the illegal acts done by the phone industry to try to destroy ISPs are a dark era in the history of corporate America.

Phone companies were being issued the largest fines in the history of corporate America. The response by our federal government, rather then threatening to break them up for being the illegal and unethical monopolies that they were, was to allow the FCC to make an announcement that they would simply stop enforcing the regulatory process.

Doing so allowed the elected officials to wave a magic wand to absolve themselves of any wrong doing and blame it all on the FCC.

This created “open season” on ISPs. Tens of thousands of technology companies closed over the following few years causing a “tech sector” recession in 2002 that has really never ended.

People in government turn a blind eye to this fact, saying “oh we thought it would push deployment of broadband faster to Americans if it was focused on fewer and larger firms.”

Were the illegal activities that cost people billions during those days any less despicable then the actions of Bernard Madoff in more recent times? I think not. The difference was that the phone companies had lobbyists in place pouring funds into both political parties.

As a result, we are now somewhere between 13th and 30th in the industrialized world in broadband deployment, instead of first when this all started.

As a result we have less choices, higher costs, fewer options, less innovation.

Network Neutrality is in fact the opposite of what the astroturf groups claim. It is not socialist, but very very PRO-business. It’s just that it is pro-entrepreneur, pro-small business, pro-equal access, pro-fair play, pro-American Community.

200 years ago, small-business America created something new and special in the world. It was all about empowering people and making resources available to them in a plentiful and low cost was.

Today many (not all but many) corporate interests have grown beyond their loyalty to the nation and hold their primary allegiance to stockholders and boards of directors. That is their choice in a free country. Some would even say it is their obligation as a corporation.

But, as those stockholders are often people and corporations from outside the country, it is ABSURD to grant large corporations some form of special status that is superior to and has more rights than small businesses that are in local communities, creating local jobs, generating local taxes, all across our country.

* * * * *

From the early days of the existence of the Bell Telephone Company, there was an understanding of a concept called “The Public Interest & Trust.” This was the assurance to a phone company that they would be granted a reasonable monopoly to recover their investment for infrastructure placed in the public right of way.

There was a caveat to this that was an implied threat to the corporation: If they did not act in the public interest, the infrastructure laying in the public right-of-way was in fact owned by the public and serviced in trust by the corporation.

So, if that corporation did not act in the public interest, there was an asset they could lose access too.

In my and others’ opinion, part of the reason why the phone industry helped to foster a recession in the Dot Com Bust was to stall all further improvement of network elements until they could be guaranteed ownership (forever) of the infrastructure laid in the public right-of-way.

Shortly after the Dot Com Bust began, the Bush administration handed over ownership rights to all the infrastructure in the public trust, the public right of way, to the telephone industry. THIS WAS A REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH CONSERVATIVELY VALUED AT ONE TRILLION DOLLARS.

The public trust had its pocket picked!

Do we have more choice? No!

Do we have lower costs? No!

And we are supposed to be happy about that?

Network Neutrality is but one more target of the telecommunications duopoly. We have been going down a slow path of regulatory changes for the Internet to become not a commons, but a TV-Version 2. A DRM platform for the phone and cable companies.

  • We have gone through UCITA (making some technologies illegal), the extension of copyright and the extension of patent rights; all on one side of the corporate coin to control content itself.
  • We have gone through a 13-year-long systematic breakup of the telecommunications industry, then a deregulation of that industry. Now we are going through a re-consolidation of that industry — but without the original protections in place to prevent abusive monopoly tactics.

    * * * * *

    So now, on the other side of the corporate coin, a handful of people are now in control of content flow.

    We may have 150 cable channels, but if they are all owned by a handful corporation, we are no better then we were 50 years ago. They control the content and to a large degree to conventional content flow.

    And now they want to destroy the Internet because in their world view it is socialist?

    The truth is they want to kill Network Neutrality, because they can not compete in a fair and open marketplace.

    Network Neutrality MAY be the only thing that will stand in the short-term to protect what is left of “the public interest”. It may be the only thing that will create a change in direction back to small-business America getting a fair and level playing field.

    As an open-minded independent, I am ashamed of both Republicans and Democrats for turning their back on entrepreneurial America. I hope they all wake up before it’s too late.

    But it is in your power to do something.

    The tension of the recent “town hall meetings” may not have gone your way. But what it has done is shown how motivated people can impact the process.

    So go to and sign the damn petition. Then call your Congressperson before they leave town, and give them a piece of your mind.

    Jeff Gerhardt is an American teacher, inventor, and entrepreneur. His work includes the development of a CAD system, one of the first PC-based point-of-purchase systems, the Tandy Color Computer, and the award-winning “KidCam” Internet Video Security System.