Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Outsourcing Big Brother"

I try and point to something fairly thoughtful and, usually, upbeat on Sundays in the hope that people will find something interesting to reflect upon on the day many of us devote to rest. Today that's Feld's "Outsourcing Big Brother" which qualifies on the thoughtful if not upbeat dimension. (I've been chewing over a wild idea that is at the intersection of geeky and social and, if I get it formed up before obligations of the day you might get that to chew on too.)

Most of us have a pretty upbeat sense that the internet is a technology that promotes freedom. Feld agrees and celebrates that aspect. At the same time:
It is the paradox of our time that just as new technologies offer unlimited possibilities for freedom of speech, government “deregulation” creates new bottlenecks. It is a race between the new technologies for freedom and what I call “censorship by outsourcing.”
While Feld's thesis might appear to be derived from this week's headlines this essay is actually almost a year old and sounded its warning before the recent revelations of collusion between big government and big corporations made this topic the day's hot ticket.

What seems most worth thinking about is Feld's contention that some forms of "deregulation" that we usually think of as fostering freedom collide with free speech rights on the internet. The tension between frees speech and corporate ownership of media is nothing new--we even have a hackneyed saw about it: "Freedom of the press belongs to those that own it." In this instance the worry is that deregulation is actually in the service of concentrating ownership (not the usual intent) and that the resulting huge corporataion (Like SBC/AT&T/BellSouth/?) have a vested interest in pleasing and sustaining the regulators at the federal level on whom they depend for their very existence.

The thought that deregulation leads to corporate consolodation and a general loss of freedom is an idea that seems counterintuitive on the surface but looks pretty credible if you look at the actual dynamics of this particular case.

So, if you're interested in a little dark reflection on what is an overcast day here in Lafayette, take a look.

Oh, what the hey...Here's a teaser:
...[The internet's] nirvana of free speech did not arise spontaneously out of nature, or even as the result of technological determinism. The internet grew out of two important principles. The first was “common carriage,” the idea that the provider of the essential service (here, the phone lines that carried the original dial-up internet) must make that service available to everyone at the same rate and cannot interfere with anyone using the service. Mark Cooper has called this principle of common carriage “essential to the DNA of capitalism.” Historically, we have applied it to inns and tolls, so that goods could move freely. We applied it again to railroads, then public utilities like electricity and phones. This prevented the entity that controlled transport of goods or information from using control of this essential facility to extort monopoly prices or favor one type of goods or services over another.

The second principle was the right to interconnect. If I run a communications network, I have a right under US law to interconnect with any other communications network. This allows networks to compete. Without this principle, a rival network could never have a chance. The competing network would refuse to connect, and the few customers on the new network would not be able to reach the majority of people on the other network. (Economists call this phenomenom a “network effect.”)

The internet arose from this universe of common carriage and interconnection. It placed control of content and services in the hands of the people at the edges of the network, rather than under the control of the network operator.

But the FCC has eliminated both of these requirements...

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