Recently, there have been no less than three “Internet Freedom Manifestos” issued by libertarian and civil libertarian groups/coalitions.
Declaration of Internet Freedom Civil Libertarian
Noted Signatories: Free Press, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, ACLU, Netroots Nation
Declaration of Internet Freedom Libertarian/Conservative
Noted Signatories: CEI, Americans for Tax Reform, Randy Barnett, Virginia Postrel
The Technology Revolution
Campaign for Liberty
The latter two statements were, in some sense, motivated by the first statement. But all three declarations of purported “Internet Freedom” are flawed.
The problem with the first declaration is the incoherence of duel objectives. Is the objective (1) increased access or (2) refraining from censorship and the protection of open standards? Anything that increases the responsibility of State Actors–promoting greater access–likewise increases its authority. Is increased State authority the best means to achieve an ends of no censorship and the protection of open standards? In addition, it is is greatly muddied by the participation of overtly partisan political groups whose sole objective is the increase of party authority and power. Groups like the ACLU, Mozilla, and EFF should resist being lumped in with partisan politicos like DailyKos and Netroots Nation.
The second statement, penned more or less as a response to the first, promotes a vision of the internet concerned solely with “the process of technological evolution, not the end result.” Of course, what if the end result is an efficient totalitarian surveillance order? You can have plenty of technological evolution and innovation toward that end. The promoted regulation regime is the typical conservative clap trap of the “rule of law” spliced with conservative economic rhetoric a la “open systems and networks aren’t always better for consumers.” Even worse, this group casts the conflict over internet freedom in terms of Thomas Sowell’s “liberal unconstrained” vs “conservative constrained” model. This thusly places the future of “internet freedom” in the palms of conservative cultural politics(and the conservative casting of “free markets”).
The third statement, authored by the Campaign for Liberty, reads like a crass piece of political opportunism penned by a Rand Paul flunkie. The degree of technological illiteracy and historical ignorance in that brief statement of principles is laughable. The implication that internet is a product of Microsoft(and others like them) innovation and the primary role of the State vis-a-vis the internet is to enforce Microsoft’s property rights.
In a previous post, “The Enforceable Obligations of IP and Copyright in Political Economy,” I discussed the actual role government played in our current internet implementation. The role was significant but, nonetheless, a largely informal one centered around a coordination problem of standards. The end consequence, however, was neither particularly intended nor centrally planned. The typical progressive clap trap that the Government invented “the internet” only applies to our current implementation. It certainly cannot be extended to a proposition that there would be no “packet-switch networking” if not for the State. And whatever progressive pride there is to take in the (informal) role the State played in the evolution of our current implementation is immediately cancelled by the fact that the State immediately began to formally enact measures to artificially exclude access to the one honest to god public good it accidentally managed to help create-human intellectual property. The progressive triumph leads to its own empirical refutation.
But I find C4L’s claptrap that our current implementation would somehow be the product of “decentralized” Microsoft innovation to be equally vulgar.
The degree of standardization required to create any degree of wide scale computer networking interoperability is substantial. For our current implementation, there were essentially two competing models in play: (1) tcp/ip, which originated out of DARPA, (2) OSI model originating from the European ISO(International Standard Organization). I would argue that tcp/ip became the dominant global standard as a consequence of the US Department of Defense declaring tcp/ip as the standard for military computing in the early 80s. The Arpanet thusly would soon switch to tcp/ip. This began to create a vendor lock-in as a consequence. Sun Microsystems began to build tcp/ip into the core of UNIX. The last piece of the puzzle involves the NSFNet evolving into the core of the first true “internet backbone.” The National Science Foundation’s project to link together academic research over it’s funded super-computer research centers–with the mandate that any university that received NSF funding to connect to network run tcp/ip over its own network–probably put tcp/ip over the top. This led to the European academic and scientific research centers to throw in the towel regarding tcp/ip adoption, even though the Europeans were heavily vested in their own OSI implementation. But fittingly, the killer app that would turn the internet into a large-scale commercial space for ordinary users and not just a domain for academics and hackers(and enthusiasts)–originated from CERN.
If we return to Microsoft, it should be noted that its a bit of a running joke of how badly Bill Gates mid 1990s book, “The Road Ahead” misjudged the coming dominance of the internet. Gates primarily referred to “the Information Super Highway” in his book and only saw “the internet” as a subset of sorts. What gates envisioned is what the “Microsoft Network” originally was, a commercial model extending a model pioneered by the likes of CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL, etc… in offering a proprietary “gated” portal community. Originally, these network providers operated over X.25 networks and were expanding by offering gateway(“gated”) access to the internet. Gates vision was how the Windows Desktop would become the commercial platform(“the window”, so to speak) to the information superhighway.
But the killer app turned out to be the “browser,” and the killer application protocol turned out to be HTTP delivering content semantically marked up in HTML. I would classify the primary pioneers responsible for the “quantum jump” of the internet to be:
(i) Tim Berners-Lee: Developed the HTTP Protocol specification(a tcp/ip specification) and a relatively simplified document markup language(HTML, a much more simplified language derived from the general ISO standard SGML)
(ii) Linus Torvalds: the first to make a “unix-like” kernel available for intel PC boxes. The kernel core for what we call “Linux”
(iii) Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, the company that developed the first “browser” with in-line multi-media display capability.
So Berners-Lee provided the app protocol specification. Torvalds’ contribution was on the server-side: unix-like boxes running on cheap PCs that allowed for inexpensive server scalability for hosting/delivering tcp/ip applications. And Andreessen’s contribution was on the client-side: turning the browser more or less into a consumer appliance. Of course, it should be mentioned that the original codebase for the Netscape Navigator browser, in part, stems from Andreessen’s work at the National Center for Computing Applications(operating from a grant by the US Government as a consequence of federal legislation passed in the early 1990s. Al Gore’s prominent role in the passage of the legislation is really the historical basis of his “I invented the internet” lore).
The end result was the quick death of Bill Gates’ original vision: the gated portal version of “the information superhighway.” Gated Portal means the integration of “ISP/Access and Platform.” The likes of CompuServe, Prodigy would fade. The corporate merger between AOL and Time Warner ranks as one of the worst business decisions of all time. Instead we saw, after the “privatization of the internet backbone,” explosive growth in bandwidth capabilities, with the Telcos becoming the ISPs(the access providers). The “browser” became the platform. The web application became the portal. Yahoo was an early example of what would become the “web portal.”
To give Bill Gates some credit, it should be noted he would soon realize his original “Road Ahead” was a dead-end. Microsoft would revamp around the “internet.” The “Microsoft Network” became the web portal, “MSN.” Microsoft would quickly launch its own browser, “Internet Explorer.” Of course, I’m not sure how many people are aware that Microsoft didn’t build IE from scratch. It was based on a codebase licensed from the National Center for Computing Applications. IE wasn’t free of that code until version 7.0. I’m pretty sure the flunkies at Campaign for Liberty don’t know this. Otherwise, it’s pretty embarrassing to have to spend time deflecting charges that Al Gore invented “Internet Explorer.”
This is already a long post but the length doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the topic at hand. Open, coordinated Standards are at the foundation of the internet as a small network. To the extent that they are artificial, then the internet is “artificial.”
Contra Declaration II: open, coordinated standards are not in evolutionary, market competition with closed systems. Not over the internet as small network.
Contra Declaration III: Open, coordinated Standards are not the artificial consequence of collectivist, government enforcement.
The underlying text of Statement I is one of network neutrality. The argument is that integration of Access and Platform is a threat to the “open internet.” Statements II,III, which are being presented as the “libertarian response,” are not serious statements. Indeed, they are just more evidence that libertarianism’s continued alignment with conservatism will result in the movement writing its own death warrant.
But what should be a coherent libertarian response to Statement I? I would contend that “State Neutrality” is the more relevant and pressing condition for the continuation of an “open internet.” And the increasingly necessary condition for State Neutrality is the separation of Internet & State. This will be the topic addressed in part II.