A statement from various advocates for an Open Internet – why I signed on

Today a relatively large and diverse group of advocates for the Open Internet filed a statement with the FCC under their notice of proposed rulemaking entitled Further Inquiry into Two Under-developed Issues in the Open Internet Proceeding. Here’s why I signed on early to support this statement, and why I hope you will support it, too. Other advocates may have other reasons, but we share a common ground that led us to sign a joint declaration despite detailed differences.

I’ve stated often and repeatedly that the Internet was created to solve a very specific design challenge – creating a way to allow all computer-mediated communication to interoperate in any way that made sense, no matter what type of computer or what medium of communications (even homing pigeons have been discussed as potential transport media). The Open Internet was designed as the one communications framework to rule them all. Very much as vocalizations evolved into a universal human communications framework, or ink on paper evolved into a universal repository for human knowledge. That’s what we tried to create when we designed the Internet protocols and the resulting thing we call the Internet. The Internet is not the fiber, not the copper, not the switches and not the cellular networks that bear its signals. It is universal, and in order to be universal, it must be open.

However, the FCC historically organizes itself around “services”, which are tightly bound to particular technologies. Satellite systems are not “radio” and telephony over radio is not the same service as telephony over wires. While this structure has been made to work, it cannot work for the Internet, because the Internet is the first communications framework defined deliberately without reference to a particular technological medium or low-level transport. (The Internet architecture was designed from the very beginning to be able to absorb technological change in its implementation and also in its uses, so unanticipated innovations in technology and in new applications would not make its fundamental design obsolete)

So it is historic and critical that this little spark of activity at the FCC, and the two companies, Google and Verizon, finally recognize the existence of “the Open Internet” as a living entity that is distinct from all of the services and the Bureaus, all of the underlying technologies, and all of the services into which the FCC historically has partitioned little fiefdoms of control, which it then can sell and regulate.

The Internet really is “one ring to rule them all” – a framework unto itself, one that cannot be measured against its “wirelessness” or its “terrestriality”. It has been a clean slate, not in terms of starting from scratch, but as a framework that collects and connects, rather than dividing, partitioning, disconnecting, and controlling.

It was carefully organized to incorporate innovations in transport of information, along with innovations in uses of such transport.

And having been recognized as something that is not merely a “threat to telephone monopolies” or a “threat to Cable TV” but as a thing unto itself, by the FCC, by Verizon, and by Google, we have an opportunity to fan that spark and encourage it.

What would happen if the FCC were to begin to recognize that all communications are to a large extent interchangeable? That one does not need to impose emergency services on AM and FM Radio Broadcasters that are architecturally distinct and unconnected to 911 on telephone systems and E911 on cellular phone systems? That there really is a competition between cellular and landline audio communications, and that cable-TV based video conferencing is just another form of person-to-person communications that can link a smartphone to a living room TV or a laptop?

This recognition, this spark, could be the beginning of rethinking the FCC’s mission to be a mission of unifying and improving the way we in America communicate digitally, to embrace innovation rather than stagnation, to embrace enhancing our civic culture rather than dividing and selling it to corporations in pieces that don’t play well together. It starts with the recognition that there is a value to an Open Internet (what we call the Public Internet, sometimes, today). And that that Open Internet is not “owned” by anyone, but is instead collectively created by many innovators at the edges, contributing services, content, communicating among themselves, and sharing a common culture across traditional jurisdictions, language boundaries, etc. In other words, the Open Internet is not a closed “service platform” or a “walled garden”, but an open interchange that crosses cultures, languages, and other traditional barriers. It would be sad if ATT, Verizon, Comcast, Google, or any other corporation were deemed to have the right to “own” your participation in the Internet, or to decide which tiny subset of content, which tiny part of the world you are paying to communicate with.

What would have happened if to use the “English language”, to read books in English, you would have to get an account with the corporate owner of the English language? When you say that ATT’s “culture” is distinct from Verizon’s “culture” – as if a “culture” is a “bookstore” that chooses which books to carry, that is the result. And until now, that is what the FCC has said the Internet was – whatever ATT offers to its customers over its pipes may not be whatever Verizon offers to its customers over its pipes. The Internet is not a private bookstore, but until this proceeding, the FCC had not acknowledged that the Internet was anything more than a minor service type, subject to modification and interpretation by those who merely provide an access connection, yet invest little or nothing in creating the rich culture and conversation that we users around the world construct for ourselves. That is what “open” means – the Internet fostering connection among us all..

This statement to the FCC doesn’t say this quite so explicitly. But it celebrates the spark that the FCC has ignited. Let’s keep that spark burning, kindle it, and recognize the gift of fire that is the Open Internet.