Splinternets and cyberspaces vs. net neutrality

Wayne Crews VP for Policy, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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The Washington, D.C., fight over “net neutrality” in some ways only scratches the surface of what’s really at stake in the question of government regulation of Internet service providers’ treatment of online content. The downside of permitting FCC and Congressional authority over cyberspace “neutrality” is hard to overstate.

A former colleague and friend, now at New Media Strategies, sent me a January 2010 article—“The Splinternet means the end of the Web’s golden age”—about the proliferation of non-compatible devices used online, and the shielding of much new content behind logins and passwords, like the way NewsCorp “hides” Wall Street Journal content behind a pay wall, and other perceived insults. The author doesn’t see the trend as reversible, but the tone implies what an ominous development this somehow is, as if all this abundance and customization is negative, and that caution is in order.

But the realities of pay models and splintering—like the fact that some journalists have families to feed and can’t write for free, that Google doesn’t see much of what’s on Facebook, and that I can’t stream your iTunes—have no metaphysical, free speech, or public policy implications. Emergent splintering online represents the beginnings of a groundbreaking expansion of the Web’s basic capabilities, not a curtailment. (Besides many with pro-neutrality views have been upset with Google lately anyway.)

This handwringing and use of the term “splinternet” reminded me of a related speculation I’d made in Forbes about 10 years ago about the tailoring of networks and pipes. Disturbed by then-burgeoning calls for regulation of the Internet emerging from various quarters over issues like privacy, spam, porn and cyber-trespass, I called for a “splinternet” mindset then and put it as follows:

The Internet needs borders beyond which users can escape damaging political resolutions of [policy] battles, which are rooted in the Internet’s non-owned, common-property status. Conflicting legislative visions in a cyberspace populated by exhibitionists at one extreme and would-be inhabitants of gated communities on the other, reveal the basic truth that not everybody wants or needs to be connected to everybody else.

Infrastructure and communications wealth—even the innovations with names like “iPad”—will make this ability to choose more feasible than ever—without sacrificing access to content and ideas. My colleague Adam Thierer and I also described such undercurrents—which could become tsunamis—in the introduction to the book Who Rules the Net?

The situation on the ground now is that FCC planners fancy themselves guardians of the idea that all content shall be treated the same. They presume to decide for everyone else, here in 2010, that network properties henceforth cannot be proprietary, and that no content can experience—brace for this—“discrimination.” But why? And how would they carry out such goals? With the technological shakeups taking place in content, infrastructure, and devices, it’s vitally important to appreciate what possibilities regulations can shut off, what carnage it can inflict to wealth creation—including content creation; it’s urgent that we explore and permit ways of making the net more profitable, and internalizing the net’s “externalities” that otherwise inspire planners to think they can control it better (or “neutralize” it).

FCC regulation is no substitute for the proper alternative, which is precisely the confusing and sometimes infuriating emerging content, network and device proliferation we now see. The frenzy is a good thing. Indeed, today’s cyberspace, if it isn’t careful, might be merely one of many that our descendants surf that feature varying levels of openness and neutrality. As communications wealth expands, the content of networks, no matter how big they are or whether they are closed or neutral, can increasingly be “cut and pasted” among one another in complex commercial arrangements. Figuring out how to do that is itself a future business model. That is, businesses of tomorrow may profit from having presences across several such dedicated “cyberspaces” and “splinternets” the way they do now across magazines, TV, radio and the net in the advertising niche. And if Washington were to do its proper job and deregulate network industries like water, power, sewer, rail, gas (instead of trying to re-regulate telecom), infrastructure too could expand well beyond our imagining. Now that would be stimulus, in case such a thing were anyone’s goal.

In other words, the Golden Age isn’t even here yet as far as the Information Revolution is concerned. As societies get wealthier, and old burgermeister meisterburgers die off (still another hint to FCC and it’s agenda), and decades and centuries pass, the “capital-I” Internet, the one spoken of today with a reverent tremble, could become far more antiquated and incapable of optimally supporting the smart devices yet to be invented (3-D Internet? Hologram displays? DNA computing?). Public policy always forgets we are not immortal; that’s the only way today’s FCC-style planners can imagine themselves smart and visionary enough to assert that net neutrality is the right thing to do; or rather, to force others to do. They have the answers; you are just the people they do things to.

We no longer use the barbed-wire telephone network of the past; we no longer use 28K modems. The future could be one of content spewing across a bouquet of networks, bits and wires alike duplicated and redundant in ways not conceivable today; businesses not even in existence yet will profit and help you profit by maintaining various presences across these “cyberspaces.” At least as far as public policy is concerned, it’s Internet technology, not the physical net and its particular ownership structure and hardware and infrastructure assortment of 2010, that will matter decades and generations hence—whether or not such networks actually come into being. Put still another way, from the other end of the telescope, tomorrow’s world in which all the content of today’s Internet might, for all we know, easily fit locally on a handheld device will be a very different world from that of today.

To that world, neutrality has nothing to offer except destruction, especially if it keeps today’s inventory of hardware artificially dumb, as warned here to FCC in 2008.

If net neutrality wins, it would entrench for us an inferior and rather unresponsive husk, the C&O Canal of Cyberspace. Thanks FCC.

Comments I just filed to FCC on its proposed “net neutrality” commandments defend in depth the notion of customized networks, pointing out how achingly “dumb” it can be to interfere in any way with smart communications pipes, especially when “dumb” ones, the “background hum” of the net you might say, can easily proliferate alongside. The neutrality issue seems even more perverse given policymaker’s simultaneous demands today for smart grids for electric power. So guys: go home. Internets, splinternets and cyberspaces will be far better off without you. I’m just glad you didn’t lock things in at 28 kilobits per second.

Wayne Crews is Vice President for Policy and Director of Tech Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, author of the annual Ten Thousand Commandments report, and co-editor of CEI’s semi-annual Agenda for Congress.