Powerful forces are afoot to take control of the Internet—for profit, of course. It’s happened before, writes Slate contributor Wu (Copyright and Communications/Columbia Univ.; co-author: Who Controls the Internet?, 2006), and the corporations have won just about every time.
Take Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, “a professor and an amateur inventor, with little taste for business.” More at home in the lab than the boardroom, Bell had backers who knew their corporate chicanery, such that the telephone, the child of many fathers, was soon in the hands of a monopoly, AT&T, that endured for more than a century. In the spirit of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” one of those investors, who had a bone to pick with the telegraph company—another monopoly—saw the telephone as a means to kill the earlier technology, and so it was. Radio, too, emerged from many inventors, another example of the simultaneity of innovation. In the 1920s, writes Wu, radio “was a two-way medium accessible to almost any hobbyist,” and private individuals and small businesses alike started radio stations as quickly as they set up blogs today. Trying to get a radio license today is a matter of considerable cost and bureaucratic negotiation, and of course it is illegal to broadcast without that license—another win for the corporations, which use these gatekeeping mechanisms to keep competition out. Examining one communication technology after another, Wu, coiner of the term “net neutrality,” artfully charts a single story in which economic power consistently trumps public good, with the Google of today being the latest “master switch” that channels communication. Given that Google has recently been in negotiations with Verizon to take a public utility—the Internet—ever more tightly into private hands, that story is timely.
Eye-opening reading, with implications for just about anyone who uses that utility, which means just about everyone.