Trying to Take Ownership

By Jonathan Krim
Thursday, December 15, 2005

A frequently served bromide in Washington these days is that the Internet became its hulking, life-altering self because it was never regulated.

Often offered by companies lobbying to avoid rules that might cause them indigestion, this version of history is hard to resist for any of us who cherish free markets. And it has the benefit of being half true.

But with 2006 looming as a watershed year for congressional action on the Internet's future, it would be good if all concerned dissected this notion, or at least took a close look at the truth's other half.

Compared with, say, the banking, utility or telephone systems, the Internet is indeed barely regulated. But what gave the Internet its disruptive power and exhilarating appeal was that it was barely owned .

Suddenly, the mom-and-pop store in Des Moines could advertise and sell to the world, without paying the freight of someone else's marketing apparatus. Intellectual and artistic works could be shared rapidly, at little or no cost. Games could be created and distributed without ever having to manufacture a physical item.

We may think of it as the information superhighway, but really the Net has been a gigantic bypass, circumventing barriers to entry and whole swaths of middlemen (think travel agents or, I'm sad to say, newspaper owners) who are now trying to figure out how to survive.

It's been a ride akin to the opening of the Wild West, with booms and busts, a goodly share of lawlessness, and the thrilling sense that anything was possible because everything was so wide open and cheap.

No one owned the Internet itself (there's no patent on it), and its rules were the province of a handful of volunteers whose motivation was purely to make it work. You paid a small fee to get on, and the sky was the limit after that.

But large stakeholders don't sit idle in the face of this kind of uncertainty and upheaval. For them (and many others), private ownership brings efficiency and entrepreneurship.

So, much of the lobbying and jockeying over the past several years have been efforts to restore order by assigning property-like rights to cyberspace wherever possible.

Thus, we've had the end of requirements that network owners lease their pipes to competitors that who want to provide Internet access. We've seen the lengthening of copyright terms, an explosion of patents, and moves by companies to block governments from adopting open-source software standards or from offering their own wireless Internet systems.

Some of these are regulatory in their own right, such as the entertainment industry's push to require design of electronic equipment that prevents copying of programming.

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