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The open internet is under attack as never before, and the attackers are the usual suspects: governments and incumbent communications giants. Unhappily, this applies in America, too.

By “open” I mean an internet where customers use the available bandwidth as they see fit, not as oligopolies decree. Of course, what customers want is not especially relevant to the bureaucrats and executives who are working hard to regain control.

It is not surprising to see repressive governments, especially the ones that control national telecommunications operations, squeeze the life out of this vital new medium. Not just political control is at stake; so, in many cases, is an enormous amount of revenue.

But it is disheartening to watch the US turn in this direction. The nation that spawned the internet is renouncing some core values in the process.

Consider, in particular, a recent interview in Newsweek magazine, in which Ed Whitacre, the chief executive of SBC Communications, made clear that he much preferred the days when US phone companies were monopolies. (Now that SBC is buying and will rename itself AT&T, he and other acquisition-minded American telecoms are well along the way toward recreating those happy – for the monopolists – old days.)

In the interview, Whitacre all but announced his company’s intention to play favourites on the data lines his company provides. At one point, he complained about Skype, the voice-over-IP company, saying, “They use our network free,” and strongly implied that he intended to force Skype (or its customers) to pay extra in order to use the network.

The nearly pure arrogance of this statement only compounded its fundamental wrongness. What the carriers provide is bandwidth: moving data packets from here to there. It is not their role, or should not be, to decide what gets delivered or in what order.

Given Whitacre’s logic, unfortunately supported by key policies, he is surely allowed to put speed bumps, outright roadblocks or extra charges in the way of all content providers on the Net. (And you thought this newspaper was already expensive.)

The SBC chief’s assertions of authority over what data passes over “his” lines – initially acquired via government-granted monopolies – have a ring of reality in part because of current government policy. Federal regulators, untroubled by the implications, are busy telling the incumbent phone and cable giants that they have no obligation to share their lines with competitors.

Oh, there have been mumblings from regulators about requiring what competition advocates call open access, that is, not discriminating in what content gets carried on those lines. But nearly all of the regulations belie such intentions.

In July I fretted about this trend in this column, following a US Supreme Court decision in a case dubbed “Brand X” after the name of an internet service provider blocked from a cable company’s lines. I worried that the decision, which adhered to current law, was another step toward giving big telecoms absolute control over the data that flows in the lines they control in addition to the provision of access itself.

Congress seems ready to compound the damage. Legislation aimed at updating telecom laws threatens the “end to end” principle that, as Internet pioneer Vint Cerf explains, “allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control”.

In a letter to a congressional committee, Cerf, now a senior employee of Google, wrote that the legislation, if it becomes law, “would do great damage to the internet as we know it”. Enshrining a rule that broadly permits network operators to discriminate in favour of certain kinds of services and to potentially interfere with others would place broadband operators in control of online activity.

It is not only Google making these complaints. Microsoft and other companies not in control of networks are equally concerned.

No one should blame Whitacre and his equally power-hungry peers in the telecom world for wanting to regain control. It is in their DNA to tell us what our choices will be, and what innovation will occur at what speed.

But the Internet’s DNA is precisely the opposite. It lets the people at the edges of networks innovate and make their own choices. This is why the Net has grown so powerfully – why it is a vibrant ecosystem and, increasingly, a platform for our communications future. It’s ours, collectively, not theirs.

Dan Gillmor’s website is www.bayosphere.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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