• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Who Built the Internet and Free Speech

A quick slice through the NYT yesterday disclosed two articles that raise interesting issues: Who Built the Internet and Free Speech.

September 24, 2012

A quick slice through the NYT yesterday disclosed two articles that raise interesting issues: Who Built the Internet and Free Speech.  

Given the ruckus over who builds what around here in the political campaign season, no wonder that revisionist history about the Internet is emerging.  Was it government or private enterprise?  Well, it was both, and more, because higher education and citizen participation played no small role.  Packet-switching, the essential "discovery" occurred almost simultaneously in the U.K. and U.S. laboratories.  Both government funding and private enterprise may be sited because it was higher education and business that housed those inventors. The development of the technology into an "invention" occurred largely in the U.S. at the behest of the government, DAPRA, commonly noted, which deployed the science into a nascent network system.  Enter, almost in real time, higher education.  What author Stephen Johnson, of the NYT articles calls "peer" groups lacks a fuller recognition that research institutions housed and supported those groups.  We know that the personal computer concept began at Xerox, from where the Tandy Corporation and Steve Jobs launched consumerization.  Higher education has been key to this development all along.

Curious: (a) that people think this question of who built the Internet is a multiple choice question rather than a interesting, complex narrative; and that (b) the jewel in the crown of American society, higher education, is overlooked in this story.  If forced into this test rubric, choose all of the above.  But the story is far more interesting, and let us not forget that the government development of the underlying protocols upon which the Internet functions (TCP/IP) means that they are in the public domain.  The free use of these protocols provides the foundation upon which private enterprise has made a bundle, from Apple and Dell to Microsoft, Google and Facebook and including telecommunication companies operating I.S.P.s to application developers, and every little start up that hopes to cash in its gains.

The First Amendment issue is in part why getting this history right matters.  Our forefathers born out this issue of free speech through their public struggles with a hierarchical centralized government structure.  This battle occurred before the transformation of American law into a pro-corporation posture.  In law, before the Civil War, the legal ground was established to allow for the flourishing of industry in the decades following.  The business of America became business, hurrah the free market, etc. and a unified political economy no longer divided between slave and free labor.  To be sure, business has been good for America, but the emphasis on finding single answers to complex questions challenges our ability to appreciate that the pro-corporation/free market of early nineteenth century lore looks a little different from twenty-first century eyes.  Or it should.  Corporations have largely already achieved their goals on U.S. soil, and daily they transcend it to incorporate in foreign countries to remain competitive in a global market.  They are tremendously powerful, powerful in a way that our founding fathers could not imagine, and therefore they have left us with little by way of Constitution, Bill of Rights or anything "governmental" to manage this extraordinary moment in world history where corporations are, in essence, as much if not more powerful than the governmental structures of most countries or even regions.

The Free Speech issue is a small but important case in point.  At issue is who decides whether content remains or is removed from the Internet.  YouTube is the example.  Owned and operated by Google, it is Google as a corporation that makes the decision, not the U.S. government.  Moreover, unlike the government, Google need not disclose to anyone their standards, process or reasons.  Why?  Because the First Amendment applies only to governmental entities. When you, user/consumer, are on the "Internet," you are the beneficiary of open and freely used technical protocols, but also on layers of private entities, from the site itself (Google, Facebook, YouTube) to the I.S.P. and from a device made by a major corporation.  Our adoration of the free market means that you now are under their terms of service, not the Bill of Rights, so if they, in their wisdom, think it is okay for an incendiary video to remain on-line, they will keep it posted, or visa versa.  And you were worried about the government controlling speech?  Surprise, in our brave new world of networked communications, private corporations have infinitely more control, given that most of the speech that seems to matter happens on those private layers.   

Some small chinks in the armor should provide the ground for better footing.  Telecommunications companies have long been subject to the common carrier rules that require that they not discriminate speech.  Time to apply this doctrine to the Internet?

Yes.  I am more concerned about the influence and control that twenty-first private, global Internet corporations have over speech than the U.S. government.  And every free speech loving advocate should be too.  Of course, the irony is that government is the only effective entity that can exercise that influence; it is simply beyond the power of a single person, the free market writ large or even a social movement to stake claims.  We must trust government enough to engage it to establish some standards and control over powerful Internet companies not to trample on what our forefathers fought for originally, although this time using government, as the lever to moderate corporations in the same name of freedom, liberty and equality shouted from rooftops three centuries ago.


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