August 10, 2007 · Lessig
In October, 2002, I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee about “network neutrality.” (Here’s the article referenced in the testimony.) I believe it was the first time Congress heard the term “network neutrality,” but the message was just a continuation of the story many of us had been pushing since circa 1998 about preserving the “end-to-end” principle on the Internet.
After my testimony, an economist/lobbyist approached me and asked: “Do you really believe there is any threat that broadband network owners would discriminate in either the content they carry, or the applications they allow? After all, first, none will have enough market power to be able to do this without consequence, and second, even if they did have enough market power, what possible incentive would they have?”
I remember then thinking — this is the life of the theorist. They have a simple economic theory about how people will behave. When mixed with large lobbyist fees, it becomes impossible for them to imagine how anyone could behave inconsistent with the theory.
I don’t know what theory would explain the extraordinary stupidity of AT&T in censoring certain anti-Bush Pearl Jam lyrics.
But the important points to remember are these:
(1) This is precisely the behavior we e2e/NetNeutrality advocates have been warning about for almost a decade. And not just (or even most importantly) in this explicit form. Much more important are the games played more subtly, to push innovation and content in the direction that benefits AT&T.
(2) This is precisely the behavior cable companies have demonstrated from the beginning of cable. They live in a culture in which they own the lines, so they believe they have the absolute right to control the content/application on those lines. Whether or not that culture is harmful for cable deployment, it will be deadly for Internet innovation.
(3) This is precisely the environment that raises the cost of application innovation for the cell phone industry. As many VCs have explained to me, innovating in the cell phone application space is deadly, because every innovation needs the approval of the network owner. Again, maybe Steve Jobs is right, and this kind of control is necessary for cell phones (though I don’t believe it). But bringing the culture of the cell phone network to the Internet is a great way to increase profits to the network owners while reducing innovation on the Net.
This censoring event, whether AT&T’s “mistake” or not, should be a rallying point for this movement. Let it be remembered a million times until we get an administration willing to do something (finally) to protect the promise of the Internet.