Substrate

Susan Crawford nicely captures the essence of the network neutrality debate:

“When [the telcos and cablecos] say ‘internet’ they mean infrastructure. They mean substrate. They say they built the substrate and now own it. … But when users say “internet” they mean relationships. We forget, because so many machines are involved, that the internet is a social world. Users don’t think about transport — they’re indifferent to the substrate. They care about what they do there. And what they do is create a complex adaptive system unlike any other communications network we’ve ever had before.”

Susan is right that the “frame” of the issue poses problems for supporters of an unconstrained Internet. The “network” is the emergent phenomenon generated by physical infrastructure + users; what we’re really talking about here is neutrality of, to use Susan’s phrase, the physical “substrate.”

Susan is a brilliant thinker and a compelling advocate (and a friend). For years I’ve advocated a layered model for telecom policy, so I’m rather sympathetic to her project. I’m pessimistic, though, about the larger battle, as well as her immediate reframing effort. “Substrate” just doesn’t sing to the masses (or the mass media that propagates memes).

Personally, I’m thinking more now about the next phase of the war for the Internet, after the telcos and cablecos win. We need to create, to appropriate a concept from John Kenneth Gallbraith, “countervailing power” structures that rein in the baser instincts of the infrastructure owners. And though I heartily support efforts like Susan’s OneWebDay, I don’t think the most effective countervailing power structures will come from citizen action. It will be the Googles and Skypes and, yes, Microsofts and John Malones of the world who will be our salvation, if anyone is. Of course, these are also the players most likely to drive a nail in to the coffin of the open Internet. Guess we have some work to do.

Nothing like some happy thoughts to start the week. And FYI, I’ll be talking about network neutrality on Wednesday at a panel discussion organized by the Federal Communications Bar Association.