Putting the Common back into Common Carriage: Why Network Ownership Matters

What does it mean to think of the Internet as a commons? First and foremost, it means the freedom to participate: a commons must be broadly inclusive; access to the Internet must not be discriminatory, based on age, race, gender, political leaning and perhaps most importantly class; in this last aspect, one’s level of financial means and education must not act as a barrier to inclusion.

Access to the Internet is determined at the “physical layer” – made up of user devices, the “pipes” that carry traffic in the form of binary data, routing equipment and servers and exchanges.

Source: Pew Research

Demographic trends show a strong correlation between income and Internet use – highlighting the importance of creating universally available service. More and more economic activity relies exclusively upon digital mediation. The people who could benefit the most from access to the digital economy are paradoxically those who are least able to afford it.

Second, the Internet as a commons must foster freedom of expression. This right is universally recognized as the cornerstone of participation in liberal, democratic societies. It translates readily into the online domain; unlike some other more contentious rights that I can think of.

Just as the common right to freedom of expression is circumscribed by prohibitions against hate speech and slander, so too must the Internet be protected by regulation that seeks to prevent a tragedy of the commons, while at the same time maintaining a sphere of possible action that is as broad and inclusive as possible.

Action online is not limited to speech. Today a growing amount of cultural, political and economic activity is mediated by digital networks.

As Charles Ess points out, when we think of the Internet we must be careful to remember that we’re not just talking about 1’s and 0’s, we’re talking about real human interaction. Online, human beings seek to recreate their ”real life” activities.

Following Benkler and Zittrain, I call the sphere of action available online the “content layer”. An open physical layer is a necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for access to the substantive content layer.

One of the main challenges facing the public is that, unlike other core infrastructure, networks are predominantly owned by private corporations who act as gatekeepers.

Actually, 10¢ seems pretty fair

Imagine if you had to pay a private company to walk to a friend’s house; to go to the grocery store; to vote; suddenly, for many people, the basic necessities of life would be out of reach. If someone stepped in your way demanding payment to cross the street…you’d step around him. Getting from place to place in the physical world requires public infrastructure – why should the digital world be any different?

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch; someone has to pay the piper. But recognizing the need for public infrastructure has led to the successful development of sustainable institutions such roads, water and sewer provision and the post office, paid for in some cases by taxes and in others by usage fees.

It’s more than just a banal platitude to say that, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Keeping this in mind, we have to remember that how we wield our tools depends on political and economic choices; contrary to mainstream discourse, how we decide to communicate affects technological development just as much as technology limits our interactions.

Industrial dominance of communication networks and their users depends on the mythological belief in technical determinism. If the uses of technology are seen to be preordained, it is that much easier to deflect public attention away from the fact that the owners of those technologies are their primary beneficiaries. We must be cognizant of the fact that a hammer can be used both to construct a building as well as to tear one down.

For the better part of the past 2 decades, the meteoric rise of the Internet was heralded as a great equalizer, immune to the follies of its predecessors. However, in light of developments like SOPA, CISPA, the “great firewall of China”, Iranian & Egyptian attempts to silence online dissent etc. evangelical enthusiasm has given way to the recognition that these claims were largely overdrawn. Familiar forces of corporate consolidation are at work, subtly attempting to transform the Internet into a broadcast medium – at the expense of its radical potential as a networked commons.

Historically, a self-reinforcing feedback loop of economic consolidation and captured government regulation has been used to seize control of these technologies in an “enclosure of the commons”, which, once established, serves to reproduce conditions of cultural and economic domination.

The extent to which the Internet’s content layer is a true “commons” might be contested, but I think it’s safe to say that the ‘net represents a significant improvement over mass media. However, its emancipatory potential is by no means assured. Sole reliance on capitalist network owners as the wardens of access through infrastructure has resulted in an enclosure of the networked commons at both the content and physical layers.

Who owns the networks has drastic implications for who benefits from them. Universal, unlimited access plays second fiddle to the profit-maximizing goals of vertically integrated media corporations like Rogers or Comcast. Alternative, non-capitalist models of network ownership must be explored if we want to equalize the distribution of benefits. Further, the recursive relationship between layers implies that we must establish public physical infrastructure in order to ensure the sustainability of the content commons.

The broad, unambiguously good effects produced by the open Internet have led to unsupported claims that traditional media models are facing their inevitable demise.

Although downward trends in some of the traditional content models may be apparent, the fact of the matter is that media conglomerates have so far been quite successful at steering consumers towards new proprietary services.

This often takes the form of a zero-sum game for control of the user’s attention.

Online, one can gain access to a virtually unlimited number of innovative services that directly compete with media companies’ legacy revenue models. Think of it like a theme park: first of all, you have to pay admission to enter. But once you’re there, there is a range of both commons-based activities and proprietary services. You can chat with your friends; you can enjoy the weather, you might have brought your own lunch. But the owner has a vested interest in discouraging you from spending your time freely. The more time you spend sitting on a bench, the less money you spend trying to knock over milk bottles, although those activities may be use-value neutral to you.

This goes doubly for services such as filesharing like bittorrent or open-source software that directly compete with vertical revenue sources. I imagine a theme park owner frowns upon playing frisbee or riding a bike in their park, and even if bag lunches are allowed, concession stands tempt the park goer at every turn.

In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler argues that the Internet presents a possibility for the emergence of a hybridized economy, in which social production plays a growing role alongside capitalism. This radical transformation of the production of knowledge and culture in society was simply not possible during the era of mass communications. However, he correctly points out that “there is no inevitable historical force that drives the technological-economic moment toward an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium.”

The fact that virtually unlimited forms of human activity must now travel through a single medium creates a “choke point” – a concept described by Tim Wu as ‘the master switch’ – that bestows an inordinate amount of power on the gatekeepers.

In the fight for control of the Internet, powerful network owners have a lot to lose, and they don’t take threats lying down. The emergence of a networked commons depends on taking vital network infrastructure out of the hands of those who stand to gain the most from preventing the free flow of information.

Beginning in the 1980’s, an international trend of privatization saw the breakup of national monopolies as governments acted to promote competition in the telecommunications sphere. Privatization was near universal, but some countries, like South Korea, Japan and Sweden maintained strict government oversight, while in North America a laissez-faire attitude was adopted, in which reliance on market forces was the preferred mode of regulation. Today’s Canadian market strongly indicates the folly of that decision.

In Canada, the telecommunications market is dominated by a small number of privately owned firms. Nationally, 5 providers dominate the broadband market, four of which are vertically integrated, together accounting for nearly 70% of subscribers in the $6.6B annual Canadian market. Competition is virtually non-existent in all but the most densely populated urban areas.

Together these four companies also own media content worth approximately $6.4 billion as of 2010, and recent developments have seen this figure increase. Dwayne Winseck has shown that vertical and horizontal media consolidation has proceeded largely unabated since the decision to deregulate. Increasing consolidation creates an irresistible incentive for network owners to promote proprietary content at the expense of consumer choice and innovation. This is the effect of vertical integration.

Historically, “common carriage” provisions have been applied to means of communication such as the post office, railroads and telephone networks to prevent vital infrastructure owners from discriminating against services that travel through their facilities. But in present day North America, attempts to apply binding “network neutrality” constraints on infrastructure owners in an environment of convergence and market self-regulation have been unsuccessful.

Data caps are near universal in Canada as well, and Bell Canada has explicitly stated that these are intended as economic measures to “discipline the use of the Internet.” Bell’s most recent ad campaign outrageously boasts that their IP services are “never shared” and challenges subscribers to “get your own Internet” – mind boggling considering that the core function of the Internet is to share information!

The list of abuses goes on and on, and includes things like the de-fanging of open access provisions, IPTV prioritization, overt cartel behavior (Inunkshuk & MLSE), and a revolving door between industry and the regulator– but it all points to one thing. When the carriage of communications can be boiled down to 1’s and 0’s travelling through a converged medium, thinking of content like wired and wireless telephones and IPTV as distinct from Internet traffic is just a shibboleth – a back door way of creating walled gardens – an enclosure of the commons.

Private telecommunications companies have much to gain and little to lose by manipulating the market and regulators to suit their needs. This type of behavior is typical of powerful, privately owned incumbents in North America – and stems from the central position they enjoy as the self-regulating controllers of lucrative communication networks.

Canadian Broadband Stats. Source: Berkman Center

By a number of well-recognized measures, Canada and America both fair dismally in international comparisons.

This is in large part due to their reliance on market self-regulation. Governments assume that an unfettered market will produce competition, and result in a fair and efficient communications industry. However, in the absence of effective regulation, competition has failed to produce itself. People rarely have a choice of providers when it comes to Internet access – vertically integrated firms dominate the market.

The cost and risk associated with building fiber optic infrastructure is prohibitive. Where an incumbent network owner exists, new firms simply do not invest in their own networks. Historically, there have rarely if ever been more than two competing networks in a given market, cable and telephone; and now that fiber optic is the industry standard the creation of more than one retail network per market would be redundant in most cases from the perspective of efficiency.

Sweden Broadband Stats. Source: Berkman Center

After universal privatization in the 80’s and 90’s, North America let go of the reigns, while countries in Europe and East Asia have maintained a steady hand in the regulation of telecommunication markets. These countries have actively induced competition by creating open access regulation. In short, what this means is that network owners must lease access to their lines on a wholesale basis, in order to allow small companies the ability to provide retail service to the public.

This effectively limits the ability of vertically integrated firms to dominate the market for Internet access. However, horizontally-oriented ISPs still provide bundled services like IPTV and VoIP, strongly promoting a walled-garden approach.

The European and East Asian “strong regulator” model is a stop-gap measure, as recalcitrant ISPs exert constant pressure on regulators to “liberalize”markets. Privately owned open access networks only emulate a public infrastructure model but fail to produce truly sustainable, equitable benefits.

Of all nations, Australia is coming closest to implementing a public infrastructure model at a national institutional level. It is currently in the process of rolling out a national fiber network through the state-owned NBNco. However, even this “progressive” model ultimately falls short – the NBN is a wholesale-network dedicated not to profit maximization but to “an acceptable return on investment”. However, service provision for end-users is provided by private, capitalist companies much like in the European and East Asian model. Of course, “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” – this system winds up allowing private companies to collect rent on public property!

Private ISPs are indifferent to whether they lease service from a public or a private company, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Prices paid by Australians are in no way related to cost born by service providers; Data caps are pitifully low; ISPs universally charge based on data usage, the cost of which in a dedicated FTTH network is negligible. The network is in initial rollout phases so it’s too early to tell the final outcome; however initial offerings are not hopeful.

In the US, some municipal fiber networks in places such as Chattannooga have taken off and are showing promising early results, but they remain isolated islands in a sea full of sharks, who have audaciously bought legislation in many jurisdictions preventing public ownership of networks.

The most promising case of public infrastructure is found in the tiny nation of Estonia, where a national blanket of free Wi-Fi networks called wifi.ee is built on top of (privately owned) open-access physical infrastructure. The free wi-fi network was largely the result of the dedication of a single individual, a man named Veljo Haamer, who traveled the country convincing business owners and citizens to make their networks freely available to the public. I’m not making this up; such is their faith in the system that Estonians vote and pay their taxes online; and are experimenting with voting via mobile phones. Sounds like “from each according to their ability, to each according to their wants” to me!

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were its public roads and aqueducts. If we are to realize a commons based Internet at all its layers, what is required is foremost patience and a concerted, dedicated citizenry to exert constant pressure on the dominant capitalist regime. Karl Marx said “Revolutions are the locomotives of history”. It is fitting then that communities like Chattanooga Tennessee are today sewing the seeds of a grassroots movement toward a publicly owned Internet.

My heartfelt gratitude goes out to Dr. Daniel Klass, Georgia Klass, and the University of Manitoba, whose generous support made my presentation of this paper at the 4th annual ICTs-S Conference in Uppsala, Sweden possible. Special thanks to Christian Fuchs et al for doing a tremendous job of organizing and hosting the conference.
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