The Infrastructure of Democracy…

September 30, 2008

As more and more of the economy in the U.S. and around the world shifts onto the internet, either directly or as an enabler, we need no reminder that our (personal and national) access to and command of new communication and computing technology matters absolutely to our prospects of prosperity.  And increasingly, the internet is central to the self-determination– to the democracy– that underlies.

On the sad occasion of the death of my friend Nancy Hicks Maynard, I looked back at a 1996 GBN White Paper she did on the future of newspapers (download here), and at the introduction to it that I had the honor to contribute:

The press, and more particularly the newspaper, have long played a special role in our lives. Democracy in the U.S. was born on a typesetter’s table and has grown with printer’s ink in its veins. But more broadly, journalism and the press have played a central role in the development and practice of democracy throughout the world because the right of self-determination is useless—or worse—without access to information.

Newspapers, as we know them, date from the Enlightenment; their roles as recorder of public agendas, as articulator of informed opinions and positions, and more recently, as public watchdog, have co-evolved with democracies. At the same time, newspapers have assumed increased importance in commercial life. Newspapers have withstood countless threats over these centuries from political authority and economic twists. Still, while they’ve changed over the years, the newspapers of today would be instantly recognizable (even if the layout and content would be puzzling) to Rousseau or Payne.

Over the last few decades, however, newspapers have faced a new threat: electronic communications. First radio, then television news have made themselves increasingly central to the societies they’ve entered (some would say, transformed). And these media have changed the place of newspapers in the ecology of journalism and democracy.

Now, with the spread of the Internet (and the dawning sense of what it may become), we seem at the verge of a much more revolutionary development: the advent of user-controlled and -defined media, where “personal news services” and “news-on-demand” might become the dominant themes. Clearly, such a direction would have profound implications for democracy…

A recent Pew study reminds us that the web is indeed an ever-more-important channel of news and information, an ever-more-central medium of civic dialogue…  the question is, how effective– how “clear”– a channel?

In a blog post this week, Vint Cerf (the person most often called “the father of the internet”) reports on an EU investigation into making broadband part of “universal service” (the basic connectivity/communications to which any citizen should have access).  Open networks– net neutrality– are key, the EU believes:  the Internet will thrive only by remaining free and open, but there are a variety of dangers that could close the net.

Download the EU Whitepaper exploring these issues (only 10 pages, and well worth reading) here.

It’s no secret that Vint and Google, for whom he is Chief Internet Evangelist, are advocates of net neutrality*; so it’s no surprise that Vint is heartily supportive of the EU’s initiative.  But what’s especially helpful about Vint’s recap is the clarity with which he (and the EU) deconstruct “openness” into it’s constituent issues:

This paper restates the danger of internet service providers using their “traffic management” powers “for anti-competitive practices such as unfairly prioritizing some traffic or slowing it down, and, in extreme cases, blocking it.” In order to prevent such a negative development, Commissioner [Viviane] Reding suggests legislation is required to ensure that Internet traffic is treated fairly and not blocked or slowed down. I’ve spoken out about this issue of net neutrality in the U.S.

In the paper, the Commission vows to help forge new copyright solutions to enable new business models to emerge. We’re looking closely at this issue.

The paper also makes a compelling case for open standards. It acknowledges the danger of “dominant players” leveraging “proprietary standards to lock consumers into their products or to extract very high royalties from market players, ultimately slowing innovation and foreclosing market entry by new players.” She promises that the Commission will use its regulatory powers to prevent such players from putting a brake on the web.

What impresses me most of all is how the Commission recognizes that an Open Internet requires a combination of these three points. For Europe to keep up in the global online race, it needs to sprint ahead powered by an openness recipe encompassing a neutral network, users rights, and open standards.

It strikes your correspondent that the key words here are “to keep up in the global online race”– a race that has an economic edge to be sure, but that is also about the pursuit of an ever-more-inclusive and involving participatory society.

Even if, as Vint suggest, net neutrality is necessary, it is not sufficient.  The infrastructure, however open, must be robust.  In an article on the shifting of global internet traffic away from the U.S., the New York Times recently noted:

Internet technologists say that the global data network that was once a competitive advantage for the United States is now increasingly outside the control of American companies. They decided not to invest in lower-cost optical fiber lines, which have rapidly become a commodity business.

That lack of investment mirrors a pattern that has taken place elsewhere in the high-technology industry, from semiconductors to personal computers.

The Times goes on to say:

The risk, Internet technologists say, is that upstarts like China and India are making larger investments in next-generation Internet technology that is likely to be crucial in determining the future of the network, with investment, innovation and profits going first to overseas companies.

Now that’s not, in itself, a bad thing (and certainly not an unfair thing– to the investor, the gain).  The concern is less that infrastructure is improving elsewhere than that it isn’t (at least at the same rate) here.

And with a national debt that is setting new records by the day– and its future implications for investments both public (e.g., see this) and, given the likely tax implications, private– it’s not getting easier to see how that infrastructure is going to improve on the pace that our economy– and our democracy– require.

Which suggests to your correspondent that those of us in the U.S. might usefully keep two things in mind as we navigate the sure-to-be-difficult next many months:  On the margin, act/manage/vote for openness; and on the margin act/manage/vote for infrastructure.  It won’t make the short term much worse– and it will help insure that we have a healthy long-term.

*One notes that Tim Berners-Lee, “father of the web” (and thus, Vint’s “son”?  “nephew”?) shares Vint’s commitment to net neutrality.  In the spirit of full disclosure, so does your correspondent…  who has the pleasure of Vint’s and Tim’s acquaintance, but is otherwise unrelated.

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