Common Sense and Cyberspace

by Richard K. Moore

NOTE: This piece was submitted to a U.S. Senator, at the request of a staff member, in March 1996, but seems equally relevant today.

Telecom backgrounder -- what preceded the "Reform" bill

What we had under the old Ma Bell monopoly was a vertically- integrated marketplace, where phone-sets, local calls, long distance, and other services, were all obtained from a single vendor. This was not an altogether bad arrangement: under this regime the U.S. telephone system was the envy of the world, and offered top quality product for bottom dollar, by global standards.

But there was a problem -- advancing technology had the potential to support new kinds of services, but the business structure of Ma Bell was not appropriate to exploit those opportunities effectively or aggressively. What was needed was competition to stimulate new-market development. But in order to enable competition, there needed to be an appropriate restructuring of the communications industry -- the creation of one or more "playing fields" in which market economics could be allowed to operate -- even while many phone services (eg. local loop) continued to be provided by natural monopolies.

The result of this transformation was a brilliant new regime, even though it seemed to dribble out as a series of distinct anti-trust actions. The communications market was divided into a number of layers, with each layer operating as a marketplace in its own right. AT&T kept the long-line layer and the long-distance business (later shared with MCI et al), while the Baby Bells got the regional networks and the local-call business (later to be diluted by cellular).

But this was only the beginning. On top of these "commodity backbone network layers" other products and services could be devised and markets developed. Entrepreneurs could develop gadgets to add-on to the network (eg. modems, multiplexers, and in-house switching systems), while other entrepreneurs could resell communications bundled with "value-added" services such as database access, timesharing services, wirephoto distribution, or whatever. The telcos got no "cut" of these value-added businesses, they just got their leased-line rentals: this is what's meant by "layered markets".

Out of this entrepreneurial activity evolved the technologies which enabled the Internet, and many other more special-purpose networks, both public and private. Just as the Ma-Bell regime served well to build up America's basic telephone network, so the "layered marketplace" regime has served well to pioneer and develop digital networking.

The post-Reform-bill regime - a playground for robber barons

But that's all history now -- the new Reform bill has essentially scrapped the whole layering paradigm, and thrown us back into the kind of laissez-faire regime that spawned the Ma Bell monopoly in the first place. Once again, we will see monopoly domination of communications, only now there will be several Majors (as in Oil or Television), rather than one single dominant vendor. And "communications" now includes so much more than phone service -- it subsumes cable and satellite and will serve as the primary distribution channel for films, live entertainment, news, and whatever cyber-experiences Hollywood is able to fabricate.

As the Telecom bill wended its way toward enactment, merger-mania swept the media industry as players positioned themselves to participate in the anticipated feeding frenzy. Examples:

Westinghouse / CBS
Disney / ABC
Gulf+Western / Paramount
Time-Warner / Turner

Now that the bill has passed, we're beginning to see RBOC mergers (eg. SBC and Pacific Telesis), and we'll see many satellite, cellular, and cable operators gobbled up by deeper pockets.

Given the Spectrum Auction, we now have a regime where monopolistic control is possible over:

The communications Majors will be integrated conglomerates, with assets distributed between content and infrastructure, and they will fight for market share a bit like airlines or television networks do today. This is indeed "competition", but sterile and unproductive compared to what we had under the layered regime.

The Cyber-Baron club -- the masters of our information future -- will be the telecom companies, the cable operators, and news & entertainment conglomerates -- together with the more general corporate community which will be involved through cross-ownership, interlocking directorates, advertising, and underwriting. In other words, cyberspace will be run by more or less the same Corporate Establishment that runs today's news & entertainment industries, which is why I refer to that future environment as Cyberspace Inc.

It is abundantly clear from today's television programming what the political landscape of Cyberspace Inc will be: corporate-slanted propaganda in place of news, skillful promotion of laissez-faire globalist agendas, careful management of voter perceptions re politicians and elections, and the use of propagandistic entertainment to instill consumerist, pro- corporate values. In other words, Cyberspace Inc, besides delivering monopolist profits to its operators, will accomplish the corporate elite's goal of controlling the public mind and preventing the possibility of genuine democracy.

The lost opportunity for democracy - the demise of Internet

The fact is that digital networking has the potential to connect people in new and exciting ways, and at very low cost. That's what the lesson of Internet is all about. An underlying broadband network is relatively cheap to provide -- modern technology makes it cheaper to provide than was standard phone service only a couple decades ago. The natural course of events would have been for bandwidth to become ever cheaper, and the Internet ever more responsive. The "digital revolution" would have blossomed forth as a flowering of independent media productions (community theater available state-wide?), political organizations, "town- hall" meetings, cross-national hobby groups, etc. ad infinitum.

This "people's infrastructure" -- which is what Internet has been rapidly becoming -- will be "cleared from the land" as the cyber developers come to town. The current Internet culture has as much relevance to the media conglomerates as the Red Indians did to the U.S. Cavalry and the westward-moving real-estate interests. This whole public-participation phenomenon will be bundled under the heading "public access" and will be relegated to some peripheral, politically impotent corner, like late-night public television is currently.

Economically, Internet culture is merely irrelevant to the soon-to- be corporate owners of cyberspace -- they don't need it, but they could permit it and continue to support it if they wanted to. But politically, Internet represents a credible threat to elite corporate hegemony over the American political process. Internet's phenomenal recent growth was threatening to connect most U.S. households and businesses to a free-for- all communications network which could be used for who-knows-what political organizing, mobilizing of boycotts, and for spreading who-knows-where- obtained information about government activities, covert operations, on- site documentary evidence of news-event cover-ups, etc.

The threat of net-enabled, PGP-endowed, militia terrorists is a real one, although tracking such operations is not a difficult problem for the likes of the NSA and FBI. But the threat of millions of citizens communicating openly, sharing information, and creating new kinds of political organizations and parties -- this is not a political landscape that the corporate elite desires to tolerate, especially as public dissatisfaction with the political status quo continues to grow apace.

Thus we can expect the screws to be tightened on Internet as the commercial "alternative" is geared up to replace it. Seemingly disparate forces are converging on the Internet from all sides. The Christian Coalition provides the public cover for CDA censorship, while the corporate media demonizes the net (eg. Time's Cyberporn article), the Church of Scientology pushes the envelope of over-restrictive copyright, ACTA strikes against the media-enhancement of Internet discourse, the FBI raids various BBS operators, and Newt himself leads the troops for the structural Reform- bill coup that underlies the whole nip-Internet-in-the-bud campaign.

Strategy options for politicians

The safest course for any politician is to simply go along with the corporate steamroller, echo the lies about the Reform bill bringing "increased competition", and queue up to receive a share of the campaign funds available from the industry.

Only if a politician REALLY cares about the future of democracy -- and is willing to risk ridicule by colleagues and the media -- would it make sense for him or her to take a responsible position on the nation's communications infrastructure.

For such a rare quixotic politician, willing to do battle for democracy, here are my thoughts regarding a regulatory/legislative agenda:

I see the central cyber issues as:

  1. Beyond CDA: the Bill of Rights (as a whole) and Cyberspace

  2. Cyber economics: the monopolist pirate raid on the wired future.

re (1)

I believe that cyber "rights" are a consequence of how cyberspace is "modelled". The corporatist position, which is all but a fait accompli, is that cyberspace is an info-distribution channel like television, and hence has no inherent rights of access, privacy, free speech, etc. -- concerns of children etc. are supposedly central (although we all know that's BS -- what could be more harmful to children than the television trash they're subjected to?).

I see the "battle" as making a case that we should look at First Class Mail as the proper precedent for private email, and Public Gatherings as the precedent for email lists & conferences, etc. In other words, we should demand that our standard civil liberties be mapped onto cyberspace appropriately. We're not asking for new rights, simply the proper legal interpretation of existing rights (such as they are).

re (2)

I believe the so-called Reform bill is a modern Enclosures Act -- the theft of the Public Commons by greedy promoters. And this public commons is a grand one indeed, being essentially the central nervous system and perceptual organs of our future society.

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
-- Anon, 18th cent., on the enclosures. (courtesy of John Whiting)

The main problem here is that the public at large understands neither the wonderful potential of cyberspace for "people's networking" (to give it an inadequate moniker), nor the true consequences of the new telecom regime.

The public is saturated with a porn-terrorist-hacker image of Internet -- when possibly a majority of messages sent are day-to-day corporate and governmental inter-department mail. And the public is told the Reform act is only to their benefit, with promises of cyber gadgets and virtual entertainment -- with no discussion of what a digital infrastructure could make available to them if it were open and cheap (which the technology should, by rights, provide).

It seems to me the first step here is purely educational -- until there's more general understanding of the real issues, it would be pointless to attempt to rouse any sizable constituency around any actions or agenda.

We have some natural allies in this field of battle, and ones with significant economic self-interest involved. These include all the small independent operators in the communications, media, and publication industries, together with everyone in public-sector-related businesses (education, municipal governments, etc.). There are also probably some professional associations who would have an identifiable commonality of interests, plus consumer groups and the like.

Specific legislative agenda

  1. Amend the Reform bill to re-instate layered markets, most particularly isolation of the transport layer (wires and spectrum) as a commodity infrastructure.

  2. Seek constituency-support among independent operators in the communications and media industries, public- interest groups, and the existing online community.

  3. Insure that public-interest groups, government, and independent operators have full and equal access to communications facilities, including the local loop and backbone infrastructure.

  4. Keep price-controls in place until and if effective, diverse competition actually occurs in a given market layer.

  5. Prohibit cross-subsidies of any kind between the transport and value-added businesses of operators.

  6. Apply the precedents of private-communications and public- gatherings to digital communications, and insure that the Bill of Rights is applied to cyberspace as regards privacy, freedom of expression and assembly, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Posted by Richard K. Moore - - PO Box 26 Wexford, Ireland Cyberlib: (USA Citizen).

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