In the past few months, the open Internet has been everywhere from Comedy Central to the Harvard Law Review. Why? Because the US government is at a crossroads in deciding how Americans will access it. The FCC solicited comments from the public, and more than 1 million people responded. But getting this one right doesn’t have to be complicated.
The FCC was created in 1934 to ensure that citizens throughout the country had access to affordable telephone service. We need a similar mandate today for Internet access. Here are five principles that can help us reach this goal.
Principle One: It’s about more than money. A common metric used to measure the success of the Internet has been the number of commercial successes it has enabled. But a far better measure is the number of attempts at innovation it has allowed. Sure, there are the Ubers and Googles and Facebooks that have made many billionaires. But more important is the vastly reduced barrier to simply trying a new idea. This low barrier is a far better measure of an entrepreneurial society. Attempts are a proxy for opportunity, and while many of these do not explosively succeed, the people who make the attempts are invariably better off for it, as is society at large. Let’s drop the economic argument that success is the only metric and place appropriate value on the social goal of giving everyone a chance. After all, opportunity is the American way.
Principle Two: The Internet is a learning engine. We spend endless energy considering how to reform schools to make an educated populace, but the Internet has done this by creeping through the back door. There are two essential aspects of learning where the Internet succeeds and traditional educational institutions fail. First, it builds an accessible reference that creates communities of knowledge, and second, it establishes a forum where people can experiment, debug, and contribute. Both are essential, but only the first is measurable. Open courseware, the open-source programming movement, and Wikipedia are wonderful examples; they have transformed learning from memorization to access and participation. The results are clear.
The second, however, is less obvious. In the 1960s, Seymour Papert invented Logo as a way for kids to learn mathematical principles through creation rather than rote. Modern iterations stress everything from creating animated stories to learning programming. More generally, the reduced barrier to trying a new idea transforms society, but it also is now affecting everything from technical learning to creative expression.
Principle Three: Symmetry is the norm. The Internet transforms us from passive consumers to active participants. The technologically enforced distinction between those who make bits and those who consume them has been eliminated. That separation is a holdover from the ancient past of mass media — think bloggers versus couch potatoes. At the MIT Media Lab, for example, students can pop up a server at the drop of a hat and publish a website, an application, or a new e-commerce experiment overnight. Can’t we make sure that everyone everywhere has the same chance?
Principle Four: Give me at least a bitway. Open Internet access has to be a simple duty of any owner of an information/communications franchise. The idea that someone can rent our airwaves and then privatize all the information that flows through them is abhorrent. Would we allow anyone to rent a public street and then charge us for its use? Of course they can provide specialized services such as movies, sports, and shopping, and of course they can profit from them. But it has to be done on top of a robust infrastructure that is open to all. This is a civic responsibility.
Principle Five: Don’t throttle the open Internet. The basic infrastructure for an open Internet cannot be diminished in favor of those higher profit services. A way to think about this is that there are public roads and toll roads that can exist side by side. But we have to make sure that every improvement made to the toll road is matched by an equal improvement to the free road. Otherwise, if you can’t pay the toll, you’re out of luck — and at the mercy of potentially narrow interests.
None of these ideas are revolutionary. But all too often, they create a polarized debate about regulation versus corporate freedom. And that misses the point. The current laws also don’t help. They are garbled and were written before the patterns of use and technologies of access had matured to where they are today. Using these principles as a guide, we can achieve an open Internet — without bitterness or legal wrangling.
Andrew Lippman is a senior research scientist and associate director at MIT’s Media Lab.