Defining the Networked Age


Shoshanah Zuboff, who wrote the farseeing In The Age of the Smart Machine some 25 years ago, considered that she longed to live in 1848 to witness the birth of the industrial economy, only to realize she was already witnessing the birth of its successor, the informated economy. Today, we are at a comparable moment. We are witnessing the birth of the networked age, in which information and communication are virtually costless and the rest will be history.

The broadband policy agenda facing new Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler will, a similar quarter century from now, be seen as the birth of this new era. Will the courts decide that the FCC can dictate how the Internet handles net neutrality (the doctrine that all Internet traffic must move on the same terms and conditions)? And if the courts don’t allow this, will chairman Wheeler take the radical, if not surreal, step (suggested by critics) of declaring broadband “a telephone service” and flirt with imposing common carriage on hundreds of billions of assets paid for by investors?

Along the way, Wheeler will also decide if he should tilt the next spectrum auctions against the current market leaders, come up with a policy to allow individuals to manage their identities on the network, decide what universal service ought to mean in the digital age and whether to mimic such old telephone practices as regulating interconnection among the Internet’s myriad networks.

It’s a busy agenda, but it’s all one agenda — defining how the networked age is going to work. These many issues are all about the central question of the moment: Whose preferences will provide the structure for the networked age, those of the interaction between providers and users in the market, or those of planners?

I am not one who’s religious about free markets, not when the planet seems to be at risk or a manic financial system seems to be at work. But that question of who will be at the center of the networked Internet — the consumer, or planners and regulators who gain dominion over it — is the one we face, and it needs to be answered intelligently. Markets are going to end up driving the broadband network, and it’s time to accept that as both desirable and inevitable.

Why? First and foremost, no one aside from investors and companies is going to build the networks of the future. It’s going to cost trillions the public sector doesn’t have. There’s no good precedent for the public Internet model working sustainedly, and the task will only get exponentially larger. Denying this reality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When we regulated cable in the early 1990s, we got less of it. When we imposed common carriage on telcos, we froze them in the DSL world and were late to fiber. But the Clinton Administration, in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, changed course. Its policy for the “information superhighway” was “if you let them, they will build it.” And they — the companies that funded and created the cable, fiber, DSL, mobile and satellite infrastructure that the Internet rides on — did.

Second, planners have no idea what the network should look like a decade from now. How will it balance these competing infrastructures, plus whatever else? Some advocates simultaneously tell us that the national network has to be fiber, that cable “has already won” and that municipalities should build their own Wi-Fi. But the future will be a mix of all of these options, as the most effective, hybridized system evolves. The FCC deciding or preordaining what it will be or, more chillingly, ought to be, can only be a disaster.

Third, there’s a vital difference between saying the network is important, and saying it requires specific regulation. Yes, it’s important, but that doesn’t tell us what to do about it. Should we require someone to show harm was done before barring a specific practice, or should we prohibit it without evidence? Should we allow content providers to pay different prices for different levels of service, or should we force the Internet into a “neutral” one-size-fits-all mode reminiscent of the dress code at the Cultural Revolution?

Neutrality’s proponents have turned up the rhetorical heat in recent weeks, talking about the “death of the Internet as we know it,” or that we can’t let Internet-service providers (ISPs) “discriminate” or somehow restrict the “permission to innovate.” In reality, the Internet would probably function better if those websites that wanted a premium connection could buy one. That would speed such innovations as telemedicine and remote learning, or live entertainment, by making an uninterruptable and unbuffered signal possible.

Moreover, allowing ISPs to sell different levels of service to websites would lower the cost of broadband to the consumer, since it would create a second revenue stream for the ISPs, much as advertising in a newspaper lowers the cost of that newspaper to its readers. And then — there’s this: Are you more worried that your ISP won’t let you see Netflix, or that Netflix will charge your ISP to let you see it?

Ours is a mixed private-public economy that protects the consumer and prohibits corrupt or predatory behavior. We respect civil rights, free speech, and the right to privacy. That framework can guide the Internet.

Otherwise, let the market do its job. The planners won’t do any better.

Dr. Everett Ehrlich is a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.