The Case for a Truly Public Internet

Cable and Railway monopolies

On the left: G. Frederick Keller’s depiction of the railway monopoly in California, 1882. On the right: South Park’s depiction of the cable monopoly, 2013. Comedic style has changed, but the basic complaint about infrastructure monopolies is timeless.

Right now, the American Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules that would essentially destroy net neutrality by allowing Internet Service Providers to give preference to the data from companies that pay a premium rate. In practice, this means that that companies like Comcast and Time Warner (who, incidentally, are about to have a merger) would be able to make the internet look a little bit more like a cable TV network, where whoever has the deepest pockets gets the greatest access to an audience. Big corporate websites will pay for the fast-lane, meaning that their websites will load almost instantly, at the expense of smaller startups, nonprofits, and personal websites, which would have to be content with whatever bandwidth is left over. Companies like Netflix, which competes with the ISPs’ cable TV services, could also suffer. Netflix, in fact, already has.

This touches at least three important political issues that I can think of. Firstly, business and innovation: The erosion of net neutrality will reduce the revolutionary potential of the internet by allowing entrenched interests to curb the threat it poses. Second, free speech: Most political speech today happens via the internet, and this could take a big hit if corporate interests start to limit bandwidth to parties who are critical of them. Third, social justice. A huge amount of interpersonal communication today happens via services like facebook, twitter and instagram, and if these suddenly see their traffic curtailed, or are forced to charge fees for a premium, faster service, then it will hurt the ability of marginalized classes to make their voices heard.

We have seen all this before, and not just in debates over the internet. The current rage against the monopolistic ISPs in the United States is virtually identical to the rage that was directed against utilities providing gas, electricity and railway travel as early as the nineteenth century. Before that, people raged against private turnpike operators. This kind of rage actually played a big role in the switch to a car-dominated transport system. The railways were seen as monopolistic, and so they were saddled with restrictive regulations that made it hard for them to compete with motor vehicles, which were far more flexible.

This problem seems to crop up again and again with any private industry that provides any kind of infrastructure. When somebody invests money to connect cable, phone lines, electricity, or railways to an area, they immediately secure a massive advantage in serving that area. If a competitor tries to come in and build their own infrastructure (which is usually not a very profitable business decision), the result will be a messy tangle of wires, pipes or tracks, and a massive waste of resources and space. So through business deals, regulations, or simple economic rationale, people run infrastructures like the internet tend to become the sole provider to a given area. This, of course, makes them a monopoly and makes it very tempting to engage in profiteering. This, as South Park has ably demonstrated, is exactly what has happened in the cable industry:

To solve this, governments often regulate these industries. But regulation has its pitfalls. It can be too stringent, in which case the old infrastructure is hobbled when a new competitor comes along. Or lobbying can make it too lax, so that profiteering happens anyway. The internet is already regulated, such as by the FCC in the United States, but the constant attacks on net neutrality seem to suggest that this is not a good long-term option. This problem isn’t limited to the United States, either. If net neutrality falls in the USA, then expect the internet companies to try and lobby for similar changes in other countries.

The recent development of Google Fiber suggests an alternative solution: Competition against entrenched commercial interests through the development of new technology. People like Google Fiber because it is breaking up the ISP monopoly. But this only kicks the problem down the road. Can you assume that Google won’t adopt Comcast’s practices once they dominate the internet service market? No, you probably can’t.

Others have suggested taking the infrastructure into their own hands, through what has been called the DarkNetPlan, and maybe in Google’s Project Loon, depending on how you interpret it. But this is likely to be far less efficient than a dedicated infrastructure built by a centralized provider, and at this moment the technology is very uncertain. It’s an interesting idea to work towards, for sure, but we shouldn’t count on it.

So maybe we need to look back at the solutions that have already been used in many places to avoid the monopolies of the railways and the electricity companies. What if we saw the internet not as a private for-profit business like cable TV, but instead more like roads: a public resource essential for society to function effectively in the twenty-first century? In today’s connected society, the internet is probably at least as important as roads. It has become crucial for everything from business to education to health. So why, then, should we be content to make exploitative private companies responsible for the internet? An alternative would be to make the internet a truly public service, run by a government corporation responsible not to its shareholders but to the electorate. Such a company could still break even or even turn a profit, but would have far less temptation to gouge the public or mount attacks on net neutrality. This would ensure that our connectivity is secure, and that it can be taken advantage of by everybody. At the very least, people in very remote areas, where internet currently costs a fortune, would probably appreciate the pooling of resources.

This plan is not without its problems. A public corporation might be more vulnerable to spying by groups like the NSA, for example, although the current corporate internet seems to offer little help on that front.  And even the utopian project of a ground-up, distributed internet could probably be hacked in one way or another So do we really have very much to lose on this front? Another problem lies in the ability of a public internet company to take advantage of the latest in technology such as Google Fiber. But such a company would be responsible to politicians who are ultimately responsible to the electorate, the rolling out of high-speed internet nationwide could be a very popular campaign promise.

Public utilities are not a perfect solution, but they do provide probably the best solution to providing socially just infrastructure that we have discovered yet. If infrastructure companies are beholden first and foremost to their shareholders, as ISPs currently are, then the outcome will always be monopolism and abuse. So we need to find ways to make them accountable primarily to their users and to wider society. This means that perhaps they should be more than a common carrier. Maybe they should simply be a public good.

A brief history of music piracy, and why it may be a good thing

This warning might just be standing in the way of technological progress.

I did a presentation a few months ago music piracy, and some interesting historical facts came up that I think are pertinent to the endless debate on the subject. Typically, this conflict is understood to be a highly adversarial one between the music industry and its consumers. In our research, we decided to take a transitions theory approach to the problem; specifically to see what lawbreaking can mean for innovation. The historical evidence on this is surprising, and it reveals some important facts about copyright infringement that have not been adequately considered.

It turns out that music copyright is actually a very novel institution, relative to the history of music generally. Up until the 1770s, artists could expect to have their music copied, re-arranged, shipped across the pond, performed, copied again, shipped back home, and re-arranged once more. They had no right to any recompense from this, and it was understood to simply be a part of the music business that they had to deal with. Romantic notions of authorial genius made such practices illegitimate with the first copyright laws, but these laws were usually ineffective. Near the turn of the twentieth century, home pianos created a massive demand for cheap sheet music, which certain individuals were more than happy to dater to, thanks in part to the invention of lithography. To combat this, sheet music companies had to resort to extra-legal measures including raiding the pirates’ houses while police looked the other way. Their findings in these raids eventually allowed them to frame piracy as a criminal conspiracy, facilitating the passage of harsher anti-piracy legislation. But this still had a limited impact and the sheet music companies were eventually forced to reduce their prices to compete with the pirates.

Since that early conflict, piracy has been pretty much a constant presence in the music business, as have the recording industry’s quixotic attempts to eliminate it. While pirates were generally able to get away with their piracy at almost every turn, the recording companies did score one important victory, namely the gradual development of the legal system around music copyright, which turned a legal structure that didn’t even exist at the turn of the century into something quite coercive. Widespread bootlegging of records during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, prompted the music industry to lobby for the Rome Convention, which made unauthorized copying of music illegal. Later, the invention of the easily copyable cassette tape lead to the passage of even stronger anti-music piracy laws in the United States, but these explicitly allowed for home copying so as to preserve the legality of mix-tapes. In 1992, the record industry actually managed to completely block a new innovation-the Digital Audiotape-due to its ease of creating high-fidelity copies of music.

With our 20/20 hindsight, we might dismiss the blocking of digital audio-tape appears as a half-measure which would be completely ineffective in the face of the massive disruption represented by the internet. For all its importance, however, the internet took a while to get itself noticed by the record industry. In fact, a stream of dot-com boom entrepreneurs looking to set up digital music services in the 1990s were nearly all rebuffed by the record companies whose intellectual property they needed. One quote from Sony Music executive Al Smith, addressed to one such entrepreneur, is particularly telling of the labels’ attitude: “Look, Kearby. My job is to keep you down. We don’t want you to succeed”. Smith’s message is clear: Sony and the other recording companies were comfortable with the music distribution system they had set up, and were not interested in adapting to new technology.

And then Napster happened. In the midst of today’s heavy-handed approach towards piracy, it is easy to forget that the illegality of piracy was far from a sure thing at the turn of the millennium. Remember: existing American law explicitly made non-commercial copying legal and while Napster did intend to be a commercial enterprise. While it provided the infrastructure, Napster itself never copied any music. Napster expected to win the lawsuit, and to establish themselves as a legitimate business making money off of merchandising and concert advertising.

Of course, this all collapsed when they eventually lost. While Napster was succeeded by a veritable parade of imitation services, such as Kazaa, Limewire and Bittorrent, another major development was in the works that would expand Napster’s legacy beyond piracy into the very structure of legitimate music distribution channels. That development was iTunes. Today, Steve Jobs gets a lot of credit for being the impetus behind the technical aspects of iTunes and the iPod, but he still needed access to the intellectual property held by the record labels in order to establish the service. It turns out that Napster had considerably softened the labels’ position on online music from the blunt dimissals of Al Smith a decade earlier. In fact, the music industry was so desperate to get some kind of cut from online activity that they actually gave Jobs a very favorable good deal on royalties. And that negotiation opened the floodgates for online services such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, CDBaby, and YouTube. It occurred at the turn of the twenty-first century almost exactly as it had at the turn of the twentieth: illegal copying forced powerful industrial interests to *ahem* face the music.

This history tells us three important things about music piracy. The first is that by forcing sheet music producers to lower their prices, piracy at the turn of the twentieth century actually assisted in the realization of market efficiency. The second is that the laws that support the recording industry against pirates were, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely the creations of that same recording industry. This implies that they were intrinsically tied to a music distribution system based on the sale of physical objects such as LPs, cassettes, and CDs. Thirdly and perhaps more importantly for my case, without online piracy there was no economic incentive for the recording industry to embrace the internet.

Does this mean that the music industry has no genuine ethical right to defend their intellectual property against pirates? Not necessarily. In fact, it depends on what you believe to be the real legislative purpose of music copyright. If you think copyright is an absolute and inalienable right afforded to artists and the companies representing them, then none of this history matters; criminals who violate the absolute rights of citizens should be punished. Alternatively, however, you might see music copyright as a strategic policy tool designed to incentive creativity. If this is the case,  then piracy may very well be justified on the grounds that it has on multiple occasions forced the record industry to adapt to new innovations, both technological and musical, when they might not otherwise have done so.

The nature of copyright is a philosophical question on which this post will remain agnostic, but there is one further point to be made from this history. The history of piracy and the recording industry has implications for technological transitions of all sorts. If the law is understood to be a part of a socio-technical regime as this case suggests it should be, then law-breaking can be a crucial means by which new technologies succeed in the market and transform systems and societies. To put it more bluntly, we may well be indebted to criminals for more than just our online music services. And that’s a fascinating thought.

Further Reading: 

Borfe, L., 2004. Where have all the good times gone? The rise and fall of the record industry. London: Atlantic Books.

Gronow, P., and Saunoi, I., trans. C. Morley., 1988. An International History of the Recording Industry. London: Cassell.

Johns, A., 2009. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Tehranian, J., 2011.  Infringement Nation: Copyright 2.0 and You. London: Oxford.

Digital Aristotle, Technological Determinism, and Visions

Not all visions of the future are accurate.

If you don’t currently follow cgpgrey on youtube, you should. He’s one of the best educational youtubers there is (see also Hank and John Green’s CrashCourse), and provides brilliantly simplified explanations of subjects that would otherwise remain arcane to most people, myself included. In a recent video (see below) crpgrey gets a little bit meta, and explains his predictions for the role of digital technology in the future of education. Given that the cgpgrey is a digital educator, it should not come as a surprise that his predictions are quite optimistic.

The video starts with a valid observation that the current model of education, in which one teacher explains the subject at hand to a room-full of students with diverse interests, attention spans, and educational needs, is deeply flawed. He uses this flaw to argue that the ideal form of education would be a model he calls “Aristotle for Everyone”, in which every student has a private tutor that can adapt the curriculum to their individual learning style.

Of course, Aristotle for Everyone is not a practical approach to reforming education, and not just because textual evidence suggests that Aristotle’s lectures were about as exciting as staring at a pile of dirt. It would be expensive, impractical, and largely ineffective to hire a private tutor for every student. This, argues cgpgrey, is where the internet comes in. The argument goes that the internet allows educational content to be made very cheaply, and that computers can use algorithms to tailor lessons for students’ individual learning styles.

I’m not going to address the practical merits of Digital Aristotle here. Instead, I’m going to take cgpgrey to task for statements like these:

  • “While it may seem primitive now, technology only gets better faster.”
  • “When Digital Aristotle arrives, it will be better, faster, and cheaper than human teachers ever could be.”
  • “What happens when Digital Aristotle truly knows students better than the teacher…Schools will be radically different, and there will be far fewer teachers working in them, doing far less”

Each of these statements is a textbook example of technological determinism-an outdated view of technology that generally says one of two things: that the development of new technologies is predictable, or that the introduction of particular technologies has predictable societal consequences. Each of these assertions is evident in cgpgrey’s video, and each of them is deeply problematic.

Firstly, it is nearly impossible to predict future technological developments with any degree of certainty. We might make reasonable assumptions that certain critical problems in existing technological systems will be solved, and we might be justified in presuming that the performance of existing technologies will improve incrementally. We are not, however, justified, in imagining that we know which radical innovations are forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, and reflect on the fact that the events of the movie supposedly happened eleven years ago.

Secondly, even if new technologies are developed and diffused, it is impossible to predict how they will be employed. People tend to make predictable errors in this area: they tend to assume that new technologies will be used in the context of present-day culture (I would like to name this “The Jetsons Effect”), they tend to exaggerate the implications of new technologies, and they they tend to imagine the societal embedding of new technologies to be a much easier process than it often turns out to be. This is only a small list of the ways socio-technical predictions go wrong, but let it suffice to say that new technology is not always adopted as planned (see the Segue for more on that), and even if it is adopted, it rarely has the impact that is predicted.

The bottom line here is that the generation and use of new technology is a mediated by society. Digital Aristotle therefore has some serious potential obstacles in his way. A student’s individual educational needs might, for example, turn out to be too complex to be accurately recognized by a computer algorithm. Or perhaps it is possible to develop such software, but the task is too difficult to accomplish with the resources available. Even if the requisite technology is developed, Digital Aristotle will still face stiff opposition from teachers’ unions, old-fashioned parents, students who learn to game the system in pursuit of easy work, principals and school boards unwilling to invest in the necessary computer infrastructure, and so on. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for Digital Aristotle to become a reality, but it’s far from a sure thing.

This does not mean, however, that Digital Aristotle should be completely dismissed. I propose that Digital Aristotle is less a prediction, and more a vision. The concept of a vision is based on the fact that it takes a lot of resources to develop and market new technologies and technological systems. The boosters of a new technology will therefore try to build coalitions to support their projects. If more people are willing to lend their voice, their intellect, and their money to the success of a new technology, then it has a higher chance of actually succeeding. Visions of the future are therefore deployed to build this support. They tend to be moralized; either presenting a new technology as key to achieving a kind of utopia, or avoiding a dystopia. This is, to my mind, a fairly exciting conclusion. It means that technological futures, rather than simply being imposed on us by engineers and scientists, are tenuous constructs that require our support to be realized.

This implies that Digital Aristotle is not an accurate prediction about the future of education, but rather, a political play to get you to buy into a particular notion of idea of how technology should be used to improve education. If enough people like the idea of Digital Aristotle, then it will be easier to support the development of the relevant software, and overrule the objections of those with an interest in the status quo. Technology, like policy, should never be implemented without robust public debate, and elaborate narrative devices can enrich this debate. This process can be made more honest and useful if we strip away the technological determinism from our discussions, and see stories about the future not as prophesies, but as bids for our support. We get to choose the future we like the best.

Further Reading:

Berkhout, Frans., 2006. “Normative Expectations in Systems Innovation”. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18: 3/4. pp. 209-211.

Geels, Frank W., and Smit,  2000. “Failed Technology Futures: Pitfalls and Lessons from a historical survey“. Futures 32. pp. 867-885.

Smith, M.R. & L. Marx (eds)., 1994. Does Technology Drive History? the Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.