Flushing the 'Net Down the Tubes


Doc Searls has written a brilliant piece framing the battle for the 'Net at Linux Journal. The piece is long, but if you take the time to read just one essay on the 'Net and the politics surrounding it this year, read this one. We haven't framed the conversation correctly If you're involved in public policy, it's especially important that you take the time to understand what's at stake here. One of Doc's main points: we haven't framed the conversation correctly and our poor choice of words makes the argument seem overly technical and arcane when it's really about freedom, markets, and innovation.

Doc notes that one point of pain is whether the 'Net is a place or a transportation system:

One reason transport trumps place is that business itself is largely, though not entirely, conceived in shipping terms. The "value chain" is a transportational notion. We speak of "loading" goods into "channels" for "distribution" to "end users" or "consumers". We even talk about "delivering" services.

On the other hand, we have understood markets as places since marketplaces were the only kinds of markets we had. The metaphors that come naturally to Wall Street are helpful here. When we speak of "bulls", "bears" and "invisible hands", we assume those beings operate in an place-like environment. When we say markets have feelings--"excitement", "fear", "anticipation", "reaction"--we assume those happen in an environment (that is, a place) as well. Even "Wall Street" is ontologically locational. It is a real place that serves, by what cognitive linguistics call metonymy, for the whole stock market, which we also conceive of as a place.

Experience counts. Humans are physical beings. All of us who use the Net experience it as a place. Prepositions are revealing. We go on the Net, not through it.

As Doc notes, most people think of the 'Net as a place, but that's not how the carriers or the FCC see it. As we frame the arguments about the 'Net, we need to speak of it as a place where speech happens, people meet, and commerce happens, not just a conduit for all that.

As an aside, I write in my November Connect column that the metaphor of place has it's own problems when misapplied to the Web. Trespass law, misapplied because of a sense of place on the 'Net, can threaten rights of access to things people have published in public places. The problem perhaps isn't the notion of place itself, but a poor understanding of what's public and what's private on the 'Net. A student asked me the other day whether or not exercising the URL-based API of a 'Net-based application could be against the law. The fact is it can, although it shouldn't be.

Neither Doc nor I want to shortchange the carriers. There is infrastructure that makes all this happen and carriers should be fairly compensated for any use of their infrastructure. What we can't let happen, however, is to allow the carriers to own the layers above the infrastructure in an effort to control and regulate the 'Net. Market competition doesn't have to mean "your choice of silos." It could mean not having to be in any silo at all.