Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has a thoughtful and thought provoking post on Shareable today. In the midst of escalating rhetoric fueled increasingly by the maddening dissolution of whatever spine the FCC once had, he asks whether fighting for network neutrality is even worth the effort.
The moment the “net neutrality” debate began was the moment the net neutrality debate was lost. For once the fate of a network – its fairness, its rule set, its capacity for social or economic reformation – is in the hands of policymakers and the corporations funding them – that network loses its power to effect change. The mere fact that lawmakers and lobbyists now control the future of the net should be enough to turn us elsewhere.
I am not as skeptical of the ability to manage a useful commons on the kind of public-private partnership the actual ownership of network infrastructure now requires. I take his points though as more fuel for thought on whether the private half of such partnerships will ever concede to the balance of rights that would support any sort of true commons. After all the ISPs pretty much to a one have been fighting to keep their management practices opaque and routinely raise the bugbears of network congestion and insufficient capacity to keep this cloak drawn tight.
There is a certain appeal to Rushkoff’s call to just build something else that better incorporates the principles network neutrality is meant to preserve. The problem, which he only touches upon, is it would need to be funded on infrastructure that is truly citizen owned or genuinely able to route around attempts at censorship or both.
So let’s get on it. Shall we use telephony, ham radio, or some other part of the spectrum? Do we organize overlapping meshes of WiMax? Do we ask George Soros for some money? MacArthur Foundation? Do we even need or want them or money at all? How might the funding of our network by a central bank issued currency, or a private foundation, or a public university, bias the very architecture we are trying to build? Who gets the ability to govern or limit what may spread over our network, if anyone? Should there be ways for us to transact?
Even if you are far less optimistic about our technical abilities to pull of this trick, I think it is an excellent thought experiment. Certainly entertaining it could lead to better policy decisions around future technologies, like wireless networking via television spectrum white spaces, that might make future debates about openness, fairness, and freedom somewhat less fraught.
The Next Net, Shareable