By Douglas Rushkoff
Jan 7, 2011
The moment the "net neutrality" debate began was the moment the net neutrality debate was lost. For once the fate of a network - its fairness, its rule set, its capacity for social or economic reformation - is in the hands of policymakers and the corporations funding them - that network loses its power to effect change. The mere fact that lawmakers and lobbyists now control the future of the net should be enough to turn us elsewhere.
Of course the Internet was never truly free, bottom-up, decentralized, or chaotic. Yes, it may have been designed with many nodes and redundancies for it to withstand a nuclear attack, but it has always been absolutely controlled by central authorities. From its Domain Name Servers to its IP addresses, the Internet depends on highly centralized mechanisms to send our packets from one place to another.
The ease with which a Senator can make a phone call to have a website such as Wikileaks yanked from the net mirrors the ease with which an entire top-level domain, like say .ir, can be excised. And no, even if some smart people jot down the numeric ip addresses of the websites they want to see before the names are yanked, offending addresses can still be blocked by any number of cooperating government and corporate trunks, relays, and ISPs. That's why ministers in China finally concluded (in cables released by Wikileaks, no less) that the Internet was "no threat."
I'm not trying to be a downer here, or knock the possibilities for networking. I just want to smash the fiction that the Internet is some sort of uncontrollable, decentralized free-for-all, so that we can get on with the business of creating something else that is.
That's right. I propose we abandon the Internet, or at least accept the fact that it has been surrendered to corporate control like pretty much everything else in Western society. It was bound to happen, and its flawed, centralized architecture made it ripe for conquest.
Just as the fledgling peer-to-peer economy of the Late Middle Ages was quashed by a repressive monarchy that still had the power to print money and write laws, the fledgling Internet of the 21st century is being quashed by a similarly corporatist government that has its hands on the switches through which we mean to transact and communicate. It will never truly level the playing fields of commerce, politics, and culture. And if it looks like that does stand a chance of happening, the Internet will be adjusted to prevent it.
The fiberoptic cables running through the streets of San Francisco and New York are not a commons, they are corporate-owned. The ISPs through which we connect are no longer public universities but private media companies who not only sell us access but sell us content, block the ports through which we share, and limit the applications through which we create. They are not turning the free, public net into a shopping mall. It already *is* a shopping mall. Your revolutionary YouTube video has a Google advertisement running across the bottom. Yes, that's the price of "free" when you're operating on someone else's network.
But unlike our medieval forebears, we don't have to defend our digital commons from corporate encroachment. Fighting and losing that un-winnable battle will only reinforce our sense of helplessness, anyway. Instead of pretending that the Internet was ever destined to be our social and intellectual commons, we can much more easily conspire together to build a real networked commons, intentionally. And with this priority embedded into its very architecture and functioning.
It is not rocket science. And I know there's more than a few dozen people reading this right now who could make it happen.