An Open Internet Means Not Having to Ask Permission

Publication Date: 
October 1, 2010
Author(s): 
Larry Lessig

In a TNR Review, Larry Lessig uses The Social Network to explain why we must maintain an open Internet. This fits exactly into our recurring theme on MuniNetworks.org that rules and structure matter greatly.

The full review is excellent and worth reading, but this is the key for our purposes (it comes toward the middle of the article):

Instead, what’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s [Founder of Facebook] genius could be embraced by half-a-billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone. The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing. Zuckerberg didn’t invent that platform. He was a hacker (a term of praise) who built for it. And as much as Zuckerberg deserves endless respect from every decent soul for his success, the real hero in this story doesn’t even get a credit.

Too few appreciate how revolutionary the Internet is because one does not have to ask permission to create content and distribute it via the Internet. However, there is a lot of money to be made and power to be had by forcing creators to ask permission -- this is what big companies like Comcast and AT&T want to do. They want more control over the Internet to further their interests.

The tragedy—small in the scale of things, no doubt—of this film is that practically everyone watching it will miss this point. Practically everyone walking out will think they understand genius on the Internet. But almost none will have seen the real genius here. And that is tragedy because just at the moment when we celebrate the product of these two wonders—Zuckerberg and the Internet—working together, policymakers are conspiring ferociously with old world powers to remove the conditions for this success. As “network neutrality” gets bargained away—to add insult to injury, by an administration that was elected with the promise to defend it—the opportunities for the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow will shrink. And as they do, we will return more to the world where success depends upon permission. And privilege. And insiders. And where fewer turn their souls to inventing the next great idea.

Prior to an important decision in 1968, one had to ask permission of "Ma Bell" to connect anything to the phone network. Then the FCC, at that time buoyed by a DC Circuit Court that did not automatically reject all regulation, forced the telephone company to allow anyone to attach devices to the network so long as they did not damage the network. A world with fax machines, answering machines, computer modems, and more followed because no one had to secure permission to connect to the network.

If you have a great idea for a television channel, can you get it carried in your community? Almost definitely not -- and the bigger the incumbent company, the harder it is. The Internet is different -- but it too could change rapidly when big companies like Comcast and AT&T are writing the rules. In the early days of both radio and television, few would have expected these exciting communications mediums to be ultimately controlled by a few powerful corporations and used almost exclusively for lowest-common-denominator, advertisement-driven, content.

This is exactly why broadband networks must put community needs before private demands. Whether owned by the local government, a nonprofit, or coop, broadband networks must be structurally accountable to the public, not a private company with its own interests.

We must resist changes that would require asking permission to publish content, which means we must maintain the power to write the rules.

For the record, I am much less bullish than Lessig on Facebook because its scale and ambition now also present a threat to the open Internet

New Republic