The day of reckoning 2

Today, the battle over the future of the Internet will be fought in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases: BrandX and Grokster, that could have deep repercussions.

BrandX deals with the treatment of broadband. The FCC has tried to classify the cable modem platform as an “information service”, not subject to various regulatory obligations. The courts have, so far, taken a different view.

Grokster deals with peer-to-peer file-sharing. The music industry sued several P2P software vendors on the grounds of contributory copyright infringement, a legal strategy that was successful in driving the original Napster out of business. Yet this time around, the courts refused to hold the software vendors liable. The new generation of distributed services, like Kazaa, have no central server that tracks who has which music files.

In these two cases, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to map out the landscape for the next-generation broadband Internet, what some are calling “Web 2.0.” In the Internet of applications, open platforms for innovation, competition, and user empowerment are critical. If gatekeepers can control what goes on the network, at what price, under which circumstances, the entire digital ecosystem surrounding the Net will be the poorer for it.

Both BrandX and Grokster concern battles over, as I put it in a Release 1.0 issue three years ago, who controls information? Control is power. It is also a limit on all sorts of downstream innovation and market growth, ultimately hurting everyone, including the erstwhile controller.