The Cut-and-Paste Splinternet

by on March 8, 2010 · 5 comments

The way Ben Kunz puts it in a new Business Week article, “Each device contains its own widening universe of services and applications, many delivered via the Internet. They are designed to keep you wedded to a particular company’s ecosystem and set of products.”

I like Ben’s article a lot because it recognizes that “walling off” and a “widening universe” are not mutually exclusive. If only policymakers and regulators acknowledged that. They must know it, but admitting it means acknowledging their limited relevance to consumer well-being and a need to step aside. So they feign ignorance.

Many claim to worry about the rise of proprietary services (I, as you can probably tell, often doubt their sincerity) but I’ve always regarded a “Splinternet” as a good thing that means more, not less, communications wealth. I first wrote about this in Forbes in 2000 when everyone was fighting over spam, privacy, content regulation, porn and marketing to kids.

Increasing wealth means a copy-and-paste world for content across networks, and it means businesses will benefit from presence across many of tomorrow’s networks, generating more value for future generations of consumers and investors. We won’t likely talk of an “Internet” with a capital-“I” and a reverent tremble the way we do now, because what matters is not the Internet as it happens to look right now, but underlying Internet technology that can just as easily erupt everywhere else, too.

Meanwhile, new application, device and content competition within and across networks disciplines the market process and “regulates” things far better than the FCC can. Yet the FCC’s very function is to administer or artificially direct proprietary business models, which it must continue to attempt to do (and as it pleads for assistance in doing in the net neutrality rulemaking) if it is going to remain relevant. I described the urgency of stopping the agency’s campaign recently in “Splinternets and cyberspaces vs. net neutrality,” and also in the January 2010 comments to the FCC on net neutrality.

Eventually the pro-business and pro-consumer cases for splintering and against artificial openness will prevail, because compulsion and deliberately ignoring free markets in infrastructure undermine communications wealth and content options despite the general view. The question is whether we recognize it now, or decades hence, long after other nations have embraced liberalized communications and bypassed us. Rather than a make-work “National Broadband Plan” like the one being presented to Congress this month, the FCC needs instead to act like Alfred Kahn at the old CAB, and present a case for turning out the lights and ratcheting down most functions over there, since airwave scarcity is increasingly disappearing (or created artificially by the agency itself) and since “public airwaves” don’t mean much in tomorrow’s world of limitless content access, customization and Everybody Tube broadcasting. The case for a ruthless, drastic purging of FCC’s involvement in and oversight of most things communications needs to be made rather than conspiracy in a make-believe, Emperor’s New Clothes broadband plan. The FCC is too much an impediment in too many important respects for the concrete plan in play to be one of adding rather than paring responsibilities. The FCC and a naive Congress are on a path toward turning America’s involvement in the Internet into the C&O Canal of Communications.

Capitalism is still too young historically for us to have had our John Locke for the digital age and its long and thin network (and intangible) properties. The short and fat stuff like houses and cars was far easier. Policymakers already destroyed the prospects of liberalization in the electricity industry by trying to mandate hyper-regulatory “retail wheeling” (same for all intents and purposes as net neutrality) in the name of “competition.” Forced neutrality has wrecked one industry. I hope we don’t do it again, but too many special interests gain from regulation. They don’t, for example, even seem to recognize the ways in which properly liberalized electricity grids would also have turbocharged communications liberalization.

Competition in access to content is only one part of the story; competition in the provision of infrastructure and devices drives communications wealth and free speech, too.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Wayne, I'm not sure I understand the point of this post. I “worry about the rise of proprietary services” because they limit my freedom as a consumer to combine devices as I choose and to switch vendors without bearing high costs. I'm not a policymaker or a regulator, and I have no particular expectation that I will become one. Do you doubt my sincerity as well?

  • Ryan Radia

    Tim, I don't think Wayne objects to healthy skepticism toward proprietary platforms, but rather to the fundamental opposition to their very existence that characterizes more than a few academics and regulators and, perhaps most notably, Jonathan Zittrain. Those who hold such a vision actually often are insincere — Zittrain carries an iPhone in his pocket! (I should note that I refused to buy a smartphone for years, during which time I suffered severe ostraciasm from my iPhone-toting friends, until a sufficiently open phone came to market.)

    If you haven't already, I suggest you read Bret Swanson's brilliant essay on the important role that proprietary, closed platforms play in driving innovation in open platforms. http://www.bretswanson.com/index.php/2010/01/co
    Bret focuses on network innovation, but his “yin and yang” hypothesis applies equally well to nearly all innovation-driven spheres of the high-tech sector.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Wayne said he “often” doubts the sincerity of those who “claim to worry about the rise of proprietary services,” a category that includes not only me, but (I think) you as well! I hope you're right that he was actually just criticizing people who want proprietary services to be illegal, but that's not what he wrote. Also, I think it's a mistake to question the sincerity of one's ideological opponents. I've talked to a lot of people who support network neutrality and I can assure you that most of them are entirely sincere. That doesn't mean they're right, but let's take them at face value and address their arguments.

  • Ryan Radia

    Tim, I don't think Wayne objects to healthy skepticism toward proprietary platforms, but rather to the fundamental opposition to their very existence that characterizes more than a few academics and regulators and, perhaps most notably, Jonathan Zittrain. Those who hold such a vision actually often are insincere — Zittrain carries an iPhone in his pocket! (I should note that I refused to buy a smartphone for years, during which time I suffered severe ostraciasm from my iPhone-toting friends, until a sufficiently open phone came to market.)

    If you haven't already, I suggest you read Bret Swanson's brilliant essay on the important role that proprietary, closed platforms play in driving innovation in open platforms. http://www.bretswanson.com/index.php/2010/01/co
    Bret focuses on network innovation, but his “yin and yang” hypothesis applies equally well to nearly all innovation-driven spheres of the high-tech sector.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Wayne said he “often” doubts the sincerity of those who “claim to worry about the rise of proprietary services,” a category that includes not only me, but (I think) you as well! I hope you're right that he was actually just criticizing people who want proprietary services to be illegal, but that's not what he wrote. Also, I think it's a mistake to question the sincerity of one's ideological opponents. I've talked to a lot of people who support network neutrality and I can assure you that most of them are entirely sincere. That doesn't mean they're right, but let's take them at face value and address their arguments.

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