Throwback Post: April 21st, 2008

In 2008, I attended the FCC hearing on Net Neutrality at Stanford and heard Robb Topolski testify. When I wrote about it later, he found my blog and commented on it, which was a really magical and touching thing for me. Today is supposed to be a day of action in support of Net Neutrality, a battle that we should already have won.

It is not too late to help fight it.

I’m interested in a lot of things. This weekend an environmental group I’m co-chairing put on an event for Earth Day. We did almost all of our organizing online, using Google Groups to share files with each other and we set up blogs. We researched facts for our displays and found vendors online. There were some incredibly talented people who acted without supervision or authority, relying only the ability to contact each other. I don’t know how we could have done any of this without relying on our easy access to massive amounts of content and people. We are free to associate, publish, and speak with each other in the most liberating commons that has ever existed. That is how I think of the internet.

That’s why I was at Stanford last week for the FCC hearing on Net Neutrality, even though I had a display to make about how much oil a plastic bottle uses. I’m using the internet for that too, of course.

I found the time to come and defend it, because it’s worth saving. We must decide what it is our culture values, and whether security and commerce can conspire to trump liberty. We must decide whether a man really should be free to associate, publish and believe as he wishes, because he is free to access a wealth of information. Or whether a few men, unseen, should dictate what kinds of conversations occur in the future. There were some incredible minds on the panel. I’m already familiar with Lawrence Lessig, but I was really impressed with Robb Topolski. He was the one who started this when he discovered Comcast blocking his files. He was sharing his hobby, barbershop quartet files, which were in the public domain and perfectly legal to share, and was intelligent enough to discover what his ISP was doing.

And I’m not. I’m not educated enough. I would have given up and thought the site was down. That’s what’s so creepy about this whole thing. I’m starting to distrust more of the market than I really care to. Another person on the panel testified that in 300 attempts to upload and share the Bible, 276 of them failed for exactly this reason. The people invisibly providing me content are similarly invisibly yanking it without my knowledge, as often as 9 out of 10 times. Even worse, at the first FCC hearing, they paid at least a few people to fill up the hall so the public couldn’t attend. This was the second hearing, and Comcast didn’t even deign to show up. There’s some real evidence accumulating that some of these people don’t really care for their customers and their rights so much.

It is not enough to let the market sort this out and hope for the best. That has already proven to be inadequate when it comes to transportation, health care and the media. 50 years ago we all “decided” to drive cars. We spend huge amounts of money on infrastructure to facilitate driving cars and the gasoline arteries they require. Our policies in the Middle East can all be attributed to this decision, which requires oil. This year, all of the presidential candidates have promised emissions caps, because the manufacturers won’t choose to help us with this addiction. We must not be such slow learners this time. As another example, I had to drive to Stanford, to defend a network that’s already available at my house. They could have streamed the testimony and had limitless participation. It was close to Earth Day, so I passed all these signs advocating public transit and carpooling, wincing. I looked up my public transit options on Google, and it would have taken me hours to get to Stanford from my house, just 15 miles away. I still had to miss the first panel almost entirely, so that I could visit enough cafes to get change for the parking meters. I guess in a sense that’s facilitating commerce, but we could have chosen to facilitate participation and communication. And I do think that’s more valuable than the six dollars in quarters it cost me to participate and communicate that day.

I keep hearing bandwidth referred to as a “scarce commodity”. It’s been argued that the market will find efficient ways of using this scarce commodity without regulation impeding their technology. Well, let’s look again at another thing referred to as a scarce commodity: oil. Did the market find ways of maximizing the efficiency of our vehicles? The answer is no. The average mileage has barely changed since the 1985. The technology is finally starting to come, but let’s not make the same mistake again. The technology was always there around the periphery, being held at arm’s length by our industries, who wanted to use the older systems despite their inefficiency. That’s where the money is. Why make improvements to the whole when it’s so lucrative to go shaking down the parts? It makes sense from their perspective. But they’ve taken it too far.

I’m truly astounded that any American company would try to produce a bill of rights for their consumers. It’s why I found the time to fight for the one we have now. It’s why I tried to write something about it, while I still have an opportunity. And it’s obvious that this is no scarce commodity, but a magical commodity. The industry players have already demonstrated that they don’t understand it. The two grad students who created Google tried to sell it originally, and no one bought it. Now they’re the dominant search engine. This blog I write is powered by Google. This evolution must be allowed to unfold.

That’s why I’m writing this on Earth Day. Someday, it will be one world. That vision of the future gets clearer to me each day. I saw the borders dissolving at this hearing, where Topolski was invited to speak about his own experience before the FCC. And while he was on stage, he twittered it. He wasn’t the only one. It was incredible to come home and google the hearing, and see that though my comments didn’t make the news, I was quoted by my peers.

That’s the country we could have. Where we simply talk to each other, without all this handwringing and authority. Without passively waiting to be recorded and soundbited. We could have the country our founding father’s dreamed of. But it falls to us to demand it. Our culture has been fortunate, to sit on the tail of history and see how our ancestors struggled. Now it’s our turn. What kind of world can we give to the future? That seems something worth thinking about on Earth Day. Why not be a noiseless patient spider, and catch this gossamer thread, flung by everyone who has ever lived and thought of better things? It’s waiting to be spun however you choose.

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