By the fall of 1890, the United States Census Bureau proclaimed the end of the American frontier. In essence, all territories in the Western United States beyond the 105th-degree latitude now had population and had been declared settled. In addition to surprising the quarter million Native Americans who ancestors who had lived there for thousands of years, the 1890 census was the first to use a crude system of “punch cards” to tabulate the count. And thus began a new electronic frontier.
With his declaration last week favoring government regulation of the Internet as a ‘public utility,” President Obama has closed the American Internet frontier. The President, favoring net neutrality and a system of no favoritism for information providers, has also inserted the federal government deeply into the American Internet.
The President’s comments were addressed to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) as they deal with the possible elimination or “readjustment” of the current policy of Internet neutrality. The FCC was an agency set up in the 1930’s Roosevelt Administration to “regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.” According to the FCC it “works towards six goals in the areas of: Broadband, competition, broadcast spectrum, the media, public safety and recently added – homeland security.” In the era of cable and satellite, it has become heavily involved in the auctioning of radio spectrum. It is little wonder that the Internet has come under it scrutiny.
The phrase the President used “public utility” is a loaded one. Economists would tell you that it is a “public good” that needs to be provided or regulated by the government due to its importance to the population. We live with regulated public utilities every day – your local power company, natural gas, water and sewage being the best examples. Even cable has been subject to a form of public regulation. With that logic, the Obama Administration wants to extend public utility status to the Internet. For a “free industry,” this is going to be a hard sell and a real reversal of its nature.
The Internet business has been mostly unregulated since its founding. In fact, it has rather reveled in its freedom to exchange information across borders freely and with impunity. However, the last decade has seen the Internet move from a place of information exchange to one of vast usage for business and personal commerce. It has equally faced a rise of concern over its use by terrorists – defined by each country in a different way – and increasing security concerns over the vast and vulnerable amounts of value information being stolen.
China, Russia, Iran, Brazil and many other countries have made no bones about controlling their Internet for political purposes. Other third world countries want it taxed to make up for revenue loss in other communications areas like telephones and the nearly dead telegraph. Even American states greedily eye the potential taxes gained from Internet commerce.
So, like it or not, with the President’s letter to the FCC declaring the Internet a public utility, we stand at the end of the Internet frontier. The fight now will be over how the newly established territory will be regulated. The time of the Free Internet is over.