The Internet is free and open infrastructure that provides almost unlimited support for free speech, free enterprise and free assembly. Nothing in human history, with the possible exception of movable type -- has done more to encourage all those freedoms. We need to be very careful about how we regulate it, especially since it bears only superficial resemblances to the many well-regulated forms of infrastructure it alters or subsumes.
Take radio and TV, for example. Spectrum -- the original "bandwidth" -- is scarce. You need a license to broadcast, and can only do so over limited distances. There are also restrictions on what you can say. Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits "any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication." Courts have upheld the prohibition.
Yet, as broadcasters and the "content industry" embrace the Net as a "medium," there is a natural temptation by Congress and the FCC to regulate it as one. In fact, this has been going on since the dawn of the browser. The Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRSA) came along in 1995. The No Electronic Theft Act followed in 1997. And -- most importantly -- there was (and still is) Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.
Thanks to the DMCA, Internet radio got off to a long and very slow start, and is still severely restricted. Online stations face payment requirements to music copyright holders are much higher than those for broadcasters -- so high that making serious money by webcasting music is nearly impossible. There are also tight restrictions on what music can be played, when, and how often. Music on podcasts is essentially prohibited, because podcasters need to "clear rights" for every piece of copyrighted music they play. That's why, except for "podsafe" music, podcasting today is almost all talk.
There is also a risk that we will regulate the Net as a form of telephony or television, because most of us are sold Internet service as gravy on top of our telephone or cable TV service -- as the third act in a "triple play." Needless to say, phone and cable companies would like to press whatever advantages they have with Congress, the FCC and other regulatory bodies.
It doesn't help that most of us barely know what the Internet actually is. Look up "The Internet is" on Google and see what happens: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22The+Internet+is%22 There is little consensus to be found. Worse, there are huge conflicts between different ways of conceiving the Net, and talking about it.
For example, when we say the Net consists of "sites," with "domains" and "locations" that we "architect," "design," "build" and "visit," we are saying the Internet is a place. (Where, presumably, you can have free speech, enterprise and assembly.)
But if we say the Net is a "medium" for the "distribution" of "content" to "consumers," we're talking about something more like broadcasting or the shipping industry, where those kinds of freedoms are more restricted.
These two ways of seeing the Net are both true, both real, and both commonly used, to the degree that we mix their metaphors constantly. They also suggest two very different regulatory approaches.
Right now most of us think about regulation in terms of the latter. That is, we want to regulate the Net as a shipping system for content. This makes sense because most of us still go on the Net through connections supplied by phone or cable companies. We also do lots of "downloading" and "uploading" -- and both are shipping terms.
Yet voice and video are just two among countless applications that can run on the Net -- and there are no limits on the number and variety of those applications. Nor should there be.
So, what's the right approach?
We need to start by recognizing that the Net is infrastructure, in the sense that it is a real thing that we can build on, and depend on. It is also public in the sense that nobody owns it and everybody can use it. We need to recognize that the Net is defined mostly by a collection of protocols for moving data -- and most of those protocols are open to improvement by anybody. These protocols may be limited in some ways by the wired or wireless connections over which they run, but they are nor reducible to those connections. You can run Internet protocols over barbed wire if you like.
This is a very different kind of infrastructure than anything civilization has ever seen before, or attempted to regulate. It's not "hard" infrastructure, like we have with roads, bridges, water and waste treatment plants. Yet it's solid. We can build on it.
In thinking about regulation, we need to maximize ways that the Net can be improved and minimize ways it can be throttled or shut down. This means we need to respect the good stuff every player brings to the table, and to keep narrow but powerful interests from control our common agenda. That agenda is to keep the Net free, open and supportive of everybody.
Specifically, we need to thank the cable and phone companies for doing the good work they've already done, and to encourage them to keep increasing data speeds while also not favoring their own "content" subsidiaries and partners. We also need to encourage them to stop working to shut down alternatives to their duopolies (which they have a long history of doing at both the state and federal levels).
We also need to thank and support the small operators -- the ISPs and Wireless ISPs (WISPs) -- who should be able to keep building out connections and offering services without needing to hire lawyers so they can fight monopolists (or duopolists) as well as state and federal regulators.
And we need to be able to build out our own Internet connections, in our homes and neighborhoods -- especially if our local Internet service providers don't provide what we need.
We can only do all this if we start by recognizing the Net as a place rather than just another medium -- a place that nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve.
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society