Internet For the People Chapter 1 Summary

  • The internet can be conceptualised in different ways: In a sense, it is the set of rules that govern how data can swim across multiple networks and mediums – whether radio, satellite or fixed-line. The internet is also a physical infrastructure consisting of enormous quantities of electronic equipment existing in different forms and in different terrains.

  • Arguably, the first trial of the internet took place in 1977, when a packet was transmitted over a few hundred thousand miles from one part of the world to another. This trial offered the first real evidence that a mechanism for data moving across different networks could work at scale.

  • This trial was under-girded by decades of public research, thousands of individuals laboring and large sums of public money.

  • Tarnoff suggests that this innovation would not have possible from private firms, who would never have taken on as expansive a gamble as building the internet. He suggests that modern innovation in Silicon Valley is thus beholden to this publicly financed labour.

  • After the initial advent of ARPANET, a network for sharing access to limited computing power installed in a few central locations and the precursor to the internet, AT&T refused to purchase ARPANET, seeing it as useless.

  • Tarnoff reasons: It is not hyperbolic to say that the internet is the TCP/IP protocol, the vast protocol outlining how data is exchanged across different protocols. The development of this protocol reflects the development of a common language for different networks to talk with each other. Private firms, locked into creating proprietary systems that are not interoperable, would likely have never developed such a system.

  • The US army initially needed a means for personnel in different parts of the world to communicate with each other. That was the impetus for the internet’s creation. Later, the army adopted the internet as a means of connecting different parts of the Pentagon. Although the US army’s need prompted an architecture, the architecture came to be useful only after users populated it with information.

  • The initial infrastructure was initially used only by members and contractors of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) the agency that pushed for the internet’s development.

  • When researchers and other agencies began to demand access to the internet, an avalanche of public money (about 1.6 Billion USD) created “tributaries” that connected the backbone built by DARPA to other networks. This backbone connected to the tributaries was known as “NSFNET”.

  • The director of the NSF eventually gave operation of the backbone mentioned above to a consortium of Michigan universities in partnership with IBM and MCI. The consortium eventually created a for-profit subsidiary that started selling commercial access to the backbone (which had been hitherto banned).

  • Other commercial providers now wanted a piece of the action. Despite managing to generate a congressional inquiry, proponents of the emerging internet being publicly owned lost to the terms of the inquiry. The inquiry more or less guaranteed privatisation of the internet, merely changing its terms. The upshot of these terms is that the backbone would be owned and managed by a few private entities, effectively creating an oligopoly.

  • The transfers to private entities came with no conditions. No federal oversight of the backbone sections managed by the private entities; no rules governing how the entities ran the infrastructure. Gone too were subsidies for nonprofit networks that brought campuses and communities online in the early days of NSFNET.

  • The privatisation of the backbone was subtle. Even in the early days of NSFNET, the backbone’s hardware was not owned by the government but leased from DARPA contractors. Indeed, the transfer of the backbone to other entities did not involve any exchange of hardware. But, the government long had the ability to dictate what would replace the backbone and what it would be used for. Moreover, in evolving NSFNET to a more expansive architecture, the government could have chosen from more than the binary choice that many industry representatives put forward: exclusive access to the internet on the part of researchers; or broad private access for all humans, the precondition for which was privatisation. This was a false choice, Tarnoff argues, but industry largely guaranteed that this was the only presented choice.

  • Tarnoff remarks: Despite believing in the importance of public-private partnerships in the stewardship of resources, Al Gore latter succumbed to believing in the benefits of total private ownership of the internet.

  • The US has had a history of promoting public access to information dissemination and subsidizing public access via contributions from wealthier private entities. For much of American history, newspapers and libraries received lower rates for postal fees, for example. Private laboratories also were charged more than public laboratories to access the internet. There was, thus, ample precedent for the internet to be, to a significant public, easily available and affordable to the public.

  • But, the mood of the post-cold-war and Clinton’s embrace of free market fundamentalism jettisoned this possibility.

  • “There was nothing in the technical composition of the internet that predetermined this outcome. Any number of measures could have popularized the internet without completely privatizing its pipes. A public lane on the information superhighway was one option; another idea would have been to expand NSFNET’s nonprofit regional networks rather than abandoning them. Funded with fees secured from the telecoms, these networks could have enabled the government to guarantee high-speed, low-cost internet access as a universal social right. Such a right could also have been secured by supporting and expanding the “free-nets” that had operated since the 1980s: nonprofit networks that offered local communities free access to the internet, typically through a dial-up modem. Tom Grundner, founder of the famous Cleveland Free-Net that pioneered the model, even tried to launch a “Corporation for Public Cybercasting,” which would have sprinkled free-nets across the country with federal money.”

  • The opportunity to make the internet accessible and easily usable by the public was, in Tarnoff’s eyes, a missed opportunity (to put it mildly).

1 Like