The Internet, “Openness” & Commercialization

by on December 22, 2010 · 10 comments

I’m always entertained by the talk among the Twitterati — especially those who seem to permanently reside in the #NetNeutrality and #FCC hashtags — about how the Internet’s “openness” is at risk, and that steps must be taken to preserve it.  Regulatory regimes are often birthed by myths, and this one is no different.  Contrary to what the regulation-happy worry-warts suggest, the Internet has never been more “open” than it is today. After all, as Geert Lovink reminded us in his 2008 critique of Jonathan Zittrain’s thinking about the decline of online openness:

[In] [t]he first decades[,] the Internet was a closed world, only accessible to (Western) academics and the U.S. military. In order to access the Internet one had to be an academic computer scientist or a physicist. Until the early nineties it was not possible for ordinary citizens, artists, business[es] or activists, in the USA or elsewhere, to obtain an email address and make use of the rudimentary UNIX-based applications. … It was a network of networks—but still a closed one.

And even though it will probably make the folks at Free Press and Public Knowledge have an aneurysm, it’s abundantly clear what shook-up this sleepy, closed model: commercialization.  That’s right, those evil folks who had the audacity to want to make a dollar online were the ones who brought us the “open” Internet we know and love today! 

Ironically, it was only because the so-called “walled garden” providers of that era — AOL and CompuServe, for example — came along that many average folk were even able to experience and enjoy this strange new world called the Internet. “The fact that millions of Americans for the first time experienced the Internet through services like AOL (and continue to do so) is a reality that Zittrain simply overlooks,” notes Lovink.

It’s true, of course, that services like AOL and CompuServe held our hands to some extent and gave many new Netizens a guided tour of cyberspace. Thus, many would push back against the suggestion that those companies actually helped promote “openness.”  Regardless, that’s all ancient history now because the walls around those particular gardens came crashing down after users became more comfortable navigating the Internet on their own. As a result, CompuServe faded from the scene and AOL lost all 25 million of its $20/month-paying subscribers as they were overtaken by the search and social networking paradigms they never saw coming.

But commercialization promoted openness in a more profound way with the rise of online commerce and the need to expand markets for goods and services, attract audiences, and grow advertising budgets. “Closed” business models just haven’t had much luck online.  Businesses of all flavors aren’t going to make more money online by “blocking” or foreclosing opportunities.

So, getting back to Net neutrality.. should we trust the claims of those who say the FCC will give us a more “open” Internet through a top-down regulatory regime?  I’ll let the brilliant Jack Shafer of Slate answer that question:

So the basic question here is who will set the Internet’s priorities, the government or the providers. That I have an innate distrust for government should surprise no regular readers. Traditionally, the state censors and marginalizes voices while private businesses tend to remain tolerant. Even at the height of the rebellions of the 1960s and early 1970s, political radicals and social radicals could always find printers to publish their most sordid, seditious, and sensational material. But that’s only because there was no FCC control over who could own and operate a printing press, no control over what prices they could charge for their services, and no state commandment that they had to accept any print job. The only times the FCC has spurred debate and commentary have been when it has stepped out of the way.

The FCC’s track record of encouraging innovation or “openness” has just not been a pretty one. Regulatory capture is one culprit here, obviously, but even when the agency’s heart is in the right spot, bureaucratic bungling usually derails the best of intentions with mounds of red tape and years of legal wrangling.

Again, the good news is that almost all signs point in the direction of things growing even more open over time — so long, that is, as the FCC doesn’t screw things up.

[p.s. I will have much more to say about my views on “openness” and Net optimism in a chapter for Berin Szoka’s terrific upcoming book, The Next Digital Decade.  I built my chapter around this Concurring Opinions debate I had with Jonathan Zittrain earlier this year.]

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