Internet Freedom: A New World Worth Fighting For

Internet Freedom: A New World Worth Fighting For
By F. X. Feeney for Written By magazine
Artwork by Michael Morgenstern

If movies are indeed a new alphabet, barely 100 years old, then the Internet is the most culturally seismic phenomenon to hit humankind since the invention of moveable type. Think about it: That morning in 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg applied his brilliant new trick with inks and leaded alloys to the production of 180 copies of the Bible, he redefined authority in Europe.

The Catholic Church, which had been the keeper of knowledge and information locally for close to 1,000 years, had been quietly superseded. Everybody could now own a copy of the sacred text used to govern them. Is it any wonder the Reformation followed? Martin Luther could publish his arguments, and—boom—“religion” was rediscovered to be a rashomon. Civilization was reborn and reshaped— the world over, as it turned out. The early Renaissance, which produced Gutenberg in the first place, was suddenly energized beyond its original limits: Maps could find their way into the hands of dreamers like Christopher Columbus; texts of an entirely new sacred order were made possible by such as Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine.

Truly, every wondrous leap of the 500 years between 1450 and 1950 was pioneered by that fantastic capacity we now take for granted as a basic right: to privately “own” the world’s common knowledge and think it over for ourselves.

What if the church fathers of the 1400s had been in a position to lock away such developments before the bull escaped the barn? Shakespeare might be remembered as an interesting Jesuit, his “To Be or Not to Be” sermon right up there with the greatest hits of John Donne. Ben Franklin? Maybe he would’ve invented moveable type, in London, and a Stratford rail-splitter named Abraham Lincoln might’ve risen 100 years later to write verse-plays you could recognize as crudely akin to Richard III and Henry V (genius does tend to find a way), but the world as we know it would not exist—or at best, be emerging at a slow pace so cruel as to make it uninhabitable by ourselves. If we reimagine the lives of our ancestors, making their ways through worlds of repression unmediated by Gutenberg’s gift, it’s a mathematical probability that most of us might never have been born.

Such volatile swings of historic potential are worth keeping firmly in view as the issue of Internet Freedom is debated in Congress now. At stake is a world of creative eruption comparable to every positive development of the past 500 years, but on a timetable five to 10 times faster and infinitely more concentrated… and more vulnerably: The corporate giants governing our economies are just as threatened by the speed and vastness of this phenomenon as were Medieval keepers of scripture, except that they have more effective instruments at their disposal to dominate and even suppress its progress.

Corporate Synergy

Cyberspace as a word has come to feel a bit shopworn lately, but it describes the phenomenon—the big bang—of the past two decades more amply and accurately than the modest Internet. What we’ve enjoyed is an explosion of “new space” that has energized and redefined everything we do, from banking to making love to reading the paper. Its frontiers are so unlimited as to constitute the discovery of a second planet within the one we’re living on.

But when the real estate feels infinite, the temptation to make a land-grab proves irresistible to a royalty determined to remain in power. Enter Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. These three telecommunications giants were blindsided by the interactivities that flourish along their superhighways. They simply did not foresee the next wave coming. How could they?

Neither did the Vatican. Neither did Gutenberg. The titans of our time have thus been helpless onlookers as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and MySpace, or “indie” phone services such as Vonage and Skype have all but gushed money, flooding the pockets of their inventors in a blissful tsunami of cash, billions of dollars worth, all of it flowing closely past the eyes of the corporate throne-holders, yet maddeningly beyond their reach.

“What they would like to do is use my pipes free,” AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre complained to Business Week in 2005, “but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it.” These words became known as the Shot Heard ’Round the Web for partisans of Internet Freedom, especially with Whitacre directly challenging in his next breath: “Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can’t be free in that sense because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!” Another executive at AT&T’s rival Verizon recently told the Washington Post that Google is “enjoying a free lunch that should, by any rational account, be the lunch of the facilities providers.” As the creatively barren Salieri so memorably lamented in Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus, when speaking of the genius Mozart: “There I was—staring through the bars of my cage— at an absolute beauty.” The agony of the telecoms is no less exquisite—and in line with Salieri’s legend, they want their piece, even if they have to kill the source to get it. The campfires of their lobbyists encircle the Capitol Dome as we speak. What they want sounds reasonable enough. They built the packets and pipes through which information travels: Why not levy a private tax upon those who profit most from what they’ve built? Indeed, why not levy an entrance fee? Open a “private” Internet, where “serious” traffickers can pay to play, while everybody else— amateur wizards, guerilla filmmakers, artists, writers, creators of every self-starting stripe—can accept hard luck for a change and constipate in outer darkness among the hackers, copyright pirates, and child pornographers. Unfair as such a result would be to the best of the net’s independent users—or so goes the corporate logic—life itself is unfair, and the brute truth is, here we have a newborn world of money to be made.

Or do we, really? The even colder truth is that the sages of these telecom giants could never in their wildest dreams have foreseen or even dimly imagined a Google or a YouTube or the galaxies of entrepreneurs uploading homespun video, audio, and images to personal websites—or they would have gotten creative themselves and done something about it. The wealth of the Internet has been a direct byproduct of its very neutrality as an economic medium. The intense cross-fertilizations of information and ideas made freely available in cyberspace have improved the web’s extraordinary reach, most dramatically fueling popular political protest this past spring in the streets of Tehran, precisely because access to the truth is free.

The telecom giants are belatedly seeking instead a creator’s royalty for what others have created. It’s a bit like the person who’s built a road, charging not only a toll from every driver (which is fair; each of us must pay to get on the Internet; that’s a given) but demanding yet another piece from the auto manufacturers, the oil companies that fuel the cars, and from the restaurants and theaters their road leads to, as well as a nickel against every toy or comic book in the hands of little passengers riding in kid carseats.

The interstate highway system was originally devised (and sold to congress by President Eisenhower in 1956) as a means for America’s strategic defense against invasion. Masses of troops could be reliably delivered from anywhere to anywhere in the lower 48 states in two-and-a-half days or less. That massive truckloads of fresh groceries and goods could also be delivered in the same timespan (depending on the strength of the driver’s amphetamines) is a side benefit we’ve been reaping for half a century now.

So it is with the Internet, which was likewise devised as a strategic protector. Masses of vital information could be delivered from anywhere to anywhere, independent of any single computer system. Data would be routed in “packets” to separate locations, only to be reassembled at the intended destination; thus not even a nuclear war could disable key communications within the United States. When Senator Al Gore shepherded the Internet into public use in the early 1990s, the same technical principles applied. The emails you send at any moment are broken down to a set of speeding numerals, distributed in packets all over the web, then sped to their addressees and reassembled, generally within fractions of a second. Amazing to think about, even now, after more than 15 years of use—and this is why the issue of deep-packet inspection is such a sore point in the discussions of Internet Freedom before congress.

Packets are in effect the moveable type of the web. Control their speed, monitor their contents, and you narrow how much information can flow and how effectively. You may even limit, if that is your goal, the varieties of ideas transmitted. You also get to track who is exchanging what ideas and with whom.

In a free cultural hemisphere as dominated by commerce such as ours, the short-term consequences of such chokepoints would be commercially frustrating. A major film studio given the Internet version of an EZ Pass will be able to traffic its films at greater speed and with better resolution than the indie filmmaker who has something more personal and more original to upload. A freelance journalist for whom the web is a prime venue will find in turn that their websites might be harder to operate, eclipsed in graphic quality, or marooned in technical remoteness by a media organ whose deeper pockets and speedier packets have the blessing of, say, Rupert Murdoch. Such needless congestions would certainly be annoying, if not bitterly appalling, when set against the vibrancy enjoyed by the homespun entrepreneurs in the first two decades of the web. But in the long term, there are far deeper and more historically meaningful freedoms at stake.

How to Crush a Revolution

“The Iranian regime,” according to the Wall Street Journal, “has developed, with the assistance of European telecommunications companies, one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the Internet, allowing it to examine the content of individual online communications on a massive scale.” This article appeared June 22, 2009, in the wake of thrilling, nonviolent, and Internetdriven rebellion by millions of the Iranian people against the blatant voter-fraud perpetrated by the authorities over the course of that week’s national election.

“Interviews with technology experts in Iran and outside the country say Iranian efforts at monitoring Internet information go well beyond blocking access to websites or severing Internet connections,” the article reveals. “Instead, in confronting the political turmoil that has consumed the country this past week, the Iranian government appears to be engaging in a practice often called deep packet inspection, which enables authorities to not only block communication but to monitor it to gather information about individuals, as well as alter it for disinformation purposes, according to these experts.” This is the dark side of deep packet inspection, and it no less afflicts Chinese citizens, who sadly joke of “The Great Firewall of China” imposed by their own government.

Are we similarly at risk here in America? Yes, but only if we give our power away. Last year, a bill was introduced before congress—introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota—that protects against such incursions, affirms the “common carriage” principle of the Communications Act of 1934, and updates that statute to uphold “freedom” for the Internet as well, stating in part:

(1) The Internet has had profound benefits for numerous aspects of daily life for millions of people throughout the United States and is increasingly vital to the economy of the United States. (2) The importance of the broadband marketplace to citizens, communities, and commerce warrants a thorough inquiry to obtain input and ideas for a variety of broadband policies that will promote openness, competition, innovation, and affordable, ubiquitous broadband service for all individuals in the United States.

The issue goes beyond liberal and conservative, beyond partisanships of “right” and “left.” (Indeed, it seems to be that rare libertarian issue on which left and right can agree.) In addition to then-Senators Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, the bill’s backers included such conservative republicans as Olympia Snowe of Maine and, before he retired, Chip Pickering of Mississippi. Fear-mongering rhetoric to the contrary, one is not opposing “capitalism” or proposing “socialism” by upholding these freedoms—even though the opposition is heavily funded by enormous stores of corporate capital, while their leaders nurse tender hopes of amassing much, much more money. What one is defending is the very essence of a free marketplace— the current net, in practical terms, is a nearly perfect “free market” in which consumers and individuals are free to watch and read from a multitude of sources.

Choices dictated by a handful of powerful companies would hardly be as free. What the cause of net neutrality (more precisely, Internet Freedom) opposes is the vertical alignment of power, concentrated in the hands of the few.

In late 2007, Verizon Wireless—one of only two companies that serve all mobile phone needs in the United States— got caught red-handed blocking political content for its text-messengers. Specifically, they refused to grant an entirely voluntary subscription-service, requested by an abortionrights organization, which proposed to give news updates that customers could only access by choice, by punching in an access code. “[We do] not accept issue-oriented (abortion, war, etc.) programs,” Verizon explained, when first confronted, “only basic, general politician-related programs (Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, etc.).” When Naral Pro Choice America, the offended organization, took the dispute public, Verizon relented, quickly dubbing the matter “an isolated incident” and telling the New York Times that the confusion grew out of their company’s good-faith efforts “to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children.” Call it the politics of fear: Pornography, and the threat of piracy (always effective in corralling creative people), are frequently invoked by lobbyists for what has been loosely termed a private Internet, but might be more precisely be described as a sealed enclosure where companies, as opposed to individuals, make decisions about content. Fears of copyright violation strike reasonable fear into the heart of every filmmaker, just as the bottom-feeding potentials of pornography strike reasonable fear into the heart of every parent. The telecommunications giants play upon such fears with expert, Fiery zeal—but we must bear in mind that the laws and tracking methods are already in place to combat these evils.

And they work. Policing the net will not be improved upon by creating a class-system of the web, except in that brute sense Orson Welles wrote of in Touch of Evil: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”

There They Go Again

We need to keep a close and disenchanted eye on just who is playing whom. The Internet is packed with excellent information regarding this issue, but a set of particularly lucid and fair-minded analyses have been made by legal scholar Susan P. Crawford, an adviser to President Obama.

In her 2007 essay “Network Rules,” Crawford sharply dissects what she calls the “romantic builder” arguments put forth by the telecom giants: I built these pipes, why can’t I take a cut of everything that flows through them?

“There is nothing wrong with charging a price for a service,” she replies, then argues: “They are using their controlled distribution channel to capture returns that come from value they have not created.” In effect, they are trying to assert a creator’s “copyright” of the net. The danger, Crawford suggests, is that this will “turn the Internet into a mobile-phone-walled garden with a cable system overlay.” Meaning a theme park of ready entertainment piped into your home—an Internet that is strictly for download, as opposed to upload.

Because much of the traffic on the U.S. Internet is already dominated by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and AT&T, it systematically takes a lot longer to upload a film than it does to download one, and so truly independent, selfstarting filmmakers are already at a slight (if tolerable) disadvantage to the major studios when it comes to distributing their work.

This is not the case in Japan, where government protection has worked in concert with the corporate ambitions of NTT (Nippon Telephone & Telegraph) to put fiberoptic technology into every home, yet still make room on its web for countless competing services. NTT was thereby permitted to retain its hegemony in the marketplace but restrained against creating any monopoly on content—with the positive result, writes Crawford, of “vibrant competition, low prices, very high speeds, very high penetration of the consumer market for broadband access, and explosive innovation in applications and services.” Although NTT’s profit margin has not grown at all from what it has built, it has been able to stay profitable, based on the contents and applications it’s created and put up on the web, in fair competition with everybody else.

Germany is the opposite story. The dominant telecommunications giant DT (Deutsche Telekom) is in such flagrante delicto with the government that it monopolizes the content (entertainment, mostly) and dominates the platforms. The result? They are being threatened with punitive legal action by the rest of the European Union, and fewer Germans are Up to broadband than the residents of any other nearby country.

Crawford suggests two possible solutions may save Americans from this latter trap. The first and costliest would be for the federal government to invoke “eminent domain,” as it did in real estate when building the superhighways— and reimburse the telecom giants for their fiber packets and pipes, as a means of freeing and protecting these channels for the public trust. The other, and more workable possibility in this Times- Are-Tight environment, would be for the government to create an agreeable structure under whose protection the telecoms would be repaid over time for what they’ve built. Our packets would then be kept as they are, free of moderation or inspection (except by warranted law enforcement), and our information highways would thereby be maintained as unprivatized, public, and neutral.

Where Greed is Good & Bad

Money is energy. There is no other definition for it—those coins in our pockets are just clinking objects, Stone Age amulets, without the life-giving properties we agree to lend them in our imaginations.

This is why the only form of energy on Earth that is more psychologically binding (or liberating or threatening) than money is the imagination itself. An individual dreaming up narratives, schemes, projects, always has the edge, the inner wealth that makes outer wealth possible. So the battle lines are drawn in perpetuity, between two wildly unpredictable groups of haves and have-nots: those who have the wealth of ideas, and those who have the cash to implement them. Perhaps “battle” is too savage an analogy—creativity and commerce manifest a square dance of changing partners when both sides are at their most abundant and robust; at humanity’s best, idea-folk have cash, and moneyfolk have ideas for putting more cash together. But change and entropy are laws of history as much as physics, and there are times (“interesting” times, the kind we’re living in) when economies fall apart, when powers are hoarded, and progress gets choked off.

Thomas Edison, one of several geniuses who “invented” movies, also had a ruthless ingenuity when it came to business.

Edison spent the better part of two decades fighting to establish his own supremacy in the matter of “who owns the patent” on motion pictures. He was so outmaneuvered by events that he was reduced to seeking a patent over sprocket holes. After all, the larger technologies of movies had been pioneered not only by Edison, but by other men and women working in general ignorance of one another, at more or less the same time, an ocean apart. Edison was so avid for control that he even paid thugs to attack and beat his rivals while filming.

Hence Samuel Goldfish—later Goldwyn—headed west with C.B. DeMille to make films in a hollyscented suburb of Los Angeles.

Had Edison prevailed, movie history would have been radically different. Our medium might have been choked in its cradle by one of its own creators, had his rivals not been ready to fight, and been so creative in defense. In addition to grinding Edison “slowly to dust in court,” as historian Kevin Brownlow described it, Adolph Zukor and Carl Laemmle spearheaded a parallel battle in the public’s imagination, by inviting audiences to look past company names and instead fall in love with their various actors, whose names they aggressively placed above the titles of films. By the creation of the star system, Edison was beaten in the marketplace as well as the courts; movies were saved by the invention of the “movies” as we know them.

The Internet, which among other astounding potentials might be the whole future of television and movie distribution, invites us to rise to a comparable challenge. Money is energy, yet it still isn’t everything—much as one hates to speak such a heretical belief aloud, in this fortune-building country.

Lucky as we are that the Vatican couldn’t stop Gutenberg, we’re also lucky that the printer never got in his own way.

What if Gutenberg had been able to control a patent on his invention? Could he have resisted the temptation? He might have become richer than Bill Gates, in Renaissance terms: And we might be the poorer. Happily, he amassed a greater wealth: Gutenberg made worlds possible.

So may we.

Back