Barack Obama was wrong or feckless on a number of important issues, but on that “You didn’t built that” remark from his re-election campaign he was sorta right:
“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
Obama got a lot of flack for saying this—much of it from those captured by a shallow narrative of tech innovation driven by bold visionaries rather than sluggish bureaucracies. (How Silicon Valley pushed this narrative, known as The Californian Ideology, is an interesting story on it’s own. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of it. In The Century Of The Self, documentariam Adam Curtis draws connections between the Californian Ideology and Ayn Rand’s philosophy.)
The truth is more complex. Neither the public nor private sector took the lead in developing the essential architecture of the most important communication development since writing. Rather, a third force deserves most of the credit—peer networks:
“Like many of the bedrock technologies that have come to define the digital age, the Internet was created by — and continues to be shaped by — decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world. Yes, government financing supported much of the early research, and private corporations enhanced and commercialized the platforms. But the institutions responsible for the technology itself were neither governments nor private start-ups. They were much closer to the loose, collaborative organizations of academic research. They were networks of peers.”
The lines following Obama’s “you didn’t build that” should be read with its bigger message in mind:
“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country: you know what, there are some things we do better together.”
This is the frame within which I think about the demise of net neutrality.
Because no one owns it, and because much of it was built collaboratively by peers who didn’t think of themselves as owners, I argue that the Internet (and thus open access to it) is much more a public than private good. It should be inherently neutral because it is ours.
IMAGE SOURCE: online-internet-icon-symbols-www-942410