Saving the Net

I finally got around to reading Doc Searls‘s long essay entitled Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes which is hosted by Linux Journal. You can also find a link to Saving the Net from Searls’s blog which includes links to interesting background reading. Saving the Net is basically a response to a Business week interview with SBC CEO Edward Whitacre. When asked about Google, Vonage and other Internet companies Whitacre says:

How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

Of course, SBC and other telecommunications companies are already being paid for their pipes. That is what their subscribers pay for, access to the Internet. The Internet includes all of these information resources and services like Google, Vonage etc. What Whitacre fails to understand is that without these companies there would be no demand for his pipes. Google and other Internet companies are driving the growth in high speed subscribers, not the other way around.

There are a couple of other interesting ideas in Saving the Net that I would like to discuss.

In the essay, Searls quotes from one of his earlier works, World of Ends.

Adding value to the Internet Lowers its Value.

Sounds screwy, but it’s true. If you optimize a network for one type of application, you de-optimize it for others. For example, if you let the network give priority to voice or video data on the grounds that they need to arrive faster, you are telling other applications that they will have to wait. And as soon as you do that, you have turned the Net from something simple for everybody into something complicated for just one purpose. It isn’t the Internet anymore.

This idea is very counter intuitive to most people. I think one of my favorite quotes helps to enlighten the idea.

Perfection is reached, not when there is no longer anything to add, but
when there is no longer anything to take away.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If only more software developers would heed that message.

Another interesting topic which is touched on in Saving the Net is how linguistics can frame an argument. For example, let’s look at the term intellectual property. Every good capitalist has some understanding of how the private property system serves society. As a result, protection of property is understood to be an absolute necessity by most people. So it should be no surprise then that people often feel strongly that intellectual property also deserves the same protection; it is property after all, the name says so. Unfortunately, analogies between intellectual property and physical property are strained at best. A farmer who owns a piece of land does not hold power over all of society because any other farmer can grow the food we need if the first farmer chooses not to. Now contrast the situation of the farmer with a company who holds a patent. For a period of twenty years the patent holding company is the only entity that has the right to use the invention covered by that patent. The power over society that comes with a patent dwarfs the power that any private property owner has. This aspect alone makes analogies between real property and intellectual property flawed. Unfortunately, aspects of intellectual property like the example given above are hardly ever discussed, partly this is because by choosing to use the word property, the parameters of the discussion are already defined.

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