The Internet faces many problems from companies looking to maximize profits at the expense of the public good. Greedy businesses threaten innovation by trying to put an end to net neutrality, media companies want to control every Internet-connected device in an effort to lock down distribution channels, and spammers and other fraudsters have pretty much taken over e-mail. Now, TechCrunch is reporting that Vint Cerf, the so-called "father of the Internet," says maybe we should think of the Internet as being like the highway system -- a public good that should be nationalized.Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch writes:
Should the Internet be owned and maintained by the government, just like the highways? Vint Cerf, the "father of the Internet" and Google's Internet evangelist, made this radical suggestion while he was sitting next to me on a panel yesterday about national tech policy at the Personal Democracy Forum. Maybe he was inspired by the presence of one of the other panelists, Claudio Prado, from Brazil's Ministry of Culture, who kept on talking about the importance of embracing Internet "peeracy." (Although, I should note that Mr. Cerf frowned upon that ill-advised coinage). But I think (or hope, rather) that he was really trying to spark a debate about whether the Internet should be treated more like the public resource that it is.
His comment was in the context of a bigger discussion about the threat to net neutrality posed by the cable and phone companies, who are making moves to control the amount and types of bits that can go through their pipes. It was made almost in passing and the discussion quickly moved to other topics.
The case for letting the government run the Internet is tempting. Rather than letting telcos, media companies, and spammers fight to control the Internet, we could just let the government run the pipe to ensure its continued fairness.
But would nationalization actually solve problems, or make them worse? Government regulation has a tendency to enshrine incumbents. A government-run Internet might become even more of a tool of big business than before, with the AT&Ts, Verizons, Googles, and Microsofts of the world setting the menu and leaving startups and innovators to fight over the the crumbs that fall off their table. What if the government Internet Agency goes bad -- it's tough to unseat a harmful monopolistic corporation, but doing that is easy compared with the task of defeating a huge government bureaucracy. Consider the terrible record the U.S. government has with Social Security, education, and health-insurance reform.
What we really need on the Internet is more competition, not less. Right now, if you want Internet access, you have a choice between your local telephone company and your local cable TV company. When there are only two businesses providing a service, that makes it easy for them to collude against customers. We need to encourage WiMax, satellite Internet, and other technologies that will give customers dozens of options for getting Internet access, so if the customer doesn't like the terms set by one provider, the customer can just pick another.
Simultaneously, we also need to give up the illusion that the Internet is a garden of free-market libertarianism. The Internet already is a marriage of the private sector and government regulation. Defense Department research produced it, and government indulgences -- in the form of easements, local monopolies, and subsidies -- allow telcos to operate. Then those same telcos, who feed at the public trough, hypocritically turn around and shout "Free market! Free market!" when the American people want to legislate net neutrality to ensure continued freedom. We need to recognize that the telcos don't own the Internet, they operate it as a public trust.
I have a request in to Google for an interview with Cerf, and I'm also interested in what you think. What would you like to ask Cerf about this proposal? Do you think the government should nationalize the Internet? Let us know.