Regulators vs. the Internet

Two stories.

From 17 May 1999, The CRTC will not regulate the Internet.

From four days ago, CRTC to review new media broadcasting in February, and CRTC to examine broadcasting in the new media environment. (Both the same story.)

David Warren responds with Time to Say Goodbye. Sez he,

The CRTC already has powers of regulation over broadcasting content that are offensive to a free people; powers that go far beyond the simple and once-necessary task of apportioning finite broadcasting bandwidth.

Advances in technology have made it less and less necessary to impose rationing on the airwaves. We have got beyond the “rabbit ears” age. Digital technology for cable and satellite have moved far beyond this, and the Internet itself becomes capable of delivering a range of material unimagined only a generation ago. Nor is telephony what it was in past generations. The CRTC is a fossil relic from an antediluvian era.

By all means keep its archives in a museum, so that our children’s children may some day see how charmingly primitive our technology once was — in the “CReTaCeous” period of our national life, when such big blundering bureaucratic behemoths as this superannuated regulator roamed the electronic plains. But it is time now for the CRTC to become extinct.

We must demand this media censor be closed — not downsized, but permanently erased from our public life. If any remaining bandwidth tasks can be identified, they should be transferred to the secretarial pool in some corner of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The problem for the CRTC is that it does seem to frame the Net in terms of broadcast. The FCC here in the U.S. does something similar, only by framing the Net in terms of telecom. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s of the “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” variety. Both frame the Net in terms of what they know best.

The problem is that the Net is not well defined. Go to Google and look up “The Internet is”. It’s all over the place. In Framing the Net I visited some of the reasons. But we need to go deeper and wider than the FCC or any ideological (or even rhetorical) corner can alone provide.

It’s so early. We’re so far from what the Net will be.

I was thinking this morning that it’s a shame that the term “cyberspace” has become passé. John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace said that we were creating a whole new world with the Net. This seemed true. In any case the essay changed my life. It was one of the documents that convinced me that the Net isn’t just a game-changer for everything it touches, but a subject of transcendent importance, so unique, so unlike anything that preceded it, that it wasn’t like anything. All metaphors are wrong, of course. That’s what makes them metaphors. They’re meaningful, but not accurate. Unlike simile, metaphor doesn’t say this is like that. It says this is that. Time is money. Life is travel. The Net is place. Or space. Or pipes. Or a service. I liked cyberspace because denoted a new kind of space, one with its own nature, its own new rules.

Could it be we’re all both right and wrong about it? If so, wouldn’t it be better not to regulate it as a breed of broadcast, or telecom, or whatever?

Anyway, I’m out of time here. Just wanted to dump this out of my brain while it was rattling around in there.

6 comments

  1. Emil Sotirov’s avatar

    Reminded me of Jay David Bolter’s “Writing Space..” which converted me to “cyberspace” and hypertext… from architecture and intertext (intertextualité)… back in 1992.

  2. bruce fryer’s avatar

    It’s like the difference between Newtonian physics and Quantum physics. Laws for one just don’t work for the other.

  3. John A Arkansawyer’s avatar

    Whenever I hear or read a reference to Barlow’s Declaration, this story by Cory Doctorow comes to mind.

  4. Mike Warot’s avatar

    The basic problem is that the internet isn’t done yet… there’s no Internet 2.0 coming down the pike as a real recognizable improvement, nor is there likely to be for quite some time, because we haven’t even begun to explore the limits of what we’ve already got.

    I agree with Mark Pesce – http://blog.futurestreetconsulting.com/ who basically says that we’re all capable of copying new skills on the internet within hours or minutes… this makes us ungovernable, no matter how hard they want to force the genii back into the bottle.

    Unlike physics, you actually can understand the internet all the way down to it’s core, when you put out binary bits into a cable or wifi link… it’s all agreed to by consensus of various technical bodies who manage the implementation of the infrastructure.

    It’s the layers that are enabled by the infrastructure that are ad-hoc and part technical and part social that are the most interesting.

    Blogging, for example, doesn’t HAVE to be instantaneous feedback to the world at large, it’s just that the early adopters set in motion a pattern which has a lot of inertia… it’s not a technical cause/effect, but rather a social one.

    Once you get out of the land of engineering, you enter the social innovation space that is where the true value of the internet is generated.

    As you say, nobody owns it, and anyone can improve it. Of course people have to agree on the improvements and spread the word. We’re ungovernable to outsiders, but we do eventually get something worked out amongst ourselves.

    The internet does route around censorship, because the consensus is that there is great value in being able to do this. If someone does manage to actually censor things, most of us agree the internet loses it’s value… thus there is a very heavy bias against any truly effective censorship, baked into the social infrastructure.

    Hope that wasn’t too much of a ramble… I’d rather slow-blog, but I’m not quite patient enough tonight.

  5. Richard Bennett’s avatar

    I gave a talk to the European regulators last week where I made exactly this point: the Internet is not a telecom network, and if we insist on dragging the corpse of the telecom regulatory model along behind it, it will never achieve its promise. The Internet is all about continual improvement, and telecom is all about stasis. This is a very, very important point and I’m glad you’re making it.

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