Expert opinion: Internet companies play the cards as dealt, dammit

11 July 2014 by Steve Blum
, ,

Pew Research asked more than 1,400 people it considers to be experts in Internet philosophy about what they think the future holds. The businesses that built the Internet are killing it, they said…

While there is no one definition of Net neutrality, it is generally expressed as the idea that the best public network should be operated in such a way as to treat all senders and receivers of content as equally as is technologically possible while maintaining information flows well. Corporate goals to serve customers and shareholders can be in conflict with this.

The chief counsel for a major foundation wrote, “Collusive and anti-competitive practices by telecommunications operators threaten the re-creation of an Internet controlled by people.” A post-doctoral researcher wrote, “We are seeing an increase in walled gardens created by giants like Facebook and Apple … Commercialization of the Internet, paradoxically, is the biggest challenge to the growth of the Internet. Communication networks’ lobbying against Net neutrality is the biggest example of this.”

I probably shouldn’t disagree with 1,400 experts. But what the hell. They are pointing to a genuine problem, but then misidentifying the source of it. Businesses – successful ones, anyway – are competitive and they will play whatever game they find themselves in to the max. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

The problem is that someone else writes many of the rules they compete under. Communications networks aren’t hiring lobbyists because they’re commercialised. They hire lobbyists because that’s how you play the game in Washington (and Sacramento and city hall and…). A game that was, in the final analysis, designed by political interests.

Internet companies were fiercely commercial from the very beginning. What’s changed is the degree to which politics, rather than microeconomics, determines winners and losers. To be sure, there are many big Internet companies, and big groups of small companies, that have enthusiastically fed that trend. But they didn’t create it: it was there to be stoked.