The cut-and-paste Splinternet

The way Ben Kunz in a new Business Week artcle puts it, “Each device contains its own widening universe of services and applications, many delivered via the Internet. They are designed to keep you wedded to a particular company’s ecosystem and set of products.”

I like Ben’s article a lot because it recognizes that “walling off” and “widening universe” are not mutually exclusive. If only policymakers and regulators acknowledged that. They can’t fail to know it; it’s just that admitting it means acknowledging their limited relevance to consumer well-being and a need to step aside. So everyone pretends.

Many claim to worry about the rise of proprietary services (I, as you can probably tell, often doubt their sincerity) but I’ve always regarded a “Splinternet” as a good thing that means more not less communications wealth. I first wrote about this in Forbes in 2000 when everyone was fighting over spam, privacy, content regulation, porn and marketing to kids.

Increasing wealth means a copy-and-paste world for content across networks, and it means businesses will benefit from presence across many of tomorrow’s networks, generating more value for future generations of consumers and investors. We won’t likely talk of an “Internet” with a capital-“I” and a reverent tremble the way we do now, because what matters is not the Internet as it happens to look right now, but underlying Internet technology that can just as easily erupt everywhere else too.

Meanwhile, new application, device and content competition within and across networks discipline the market process and “regulate” things far better than the FCC can. Yet the FCC’s very function is to administer or artificially direct proprietary business models, which it must continue to attempt to do (and as it pleads for assistance in doing in the net neutrality rulemaking) if it is going to maintain relevance. I described the urgency of stopping the agency’s campaign recently in “Splinternets and cyberspaces vs. net neutrality ” , and also in the January 2010 comments to the FCC on net neutrality.

Eventually the pro-business and pro-consumer cases for splintering and against artificial openness will prevail, because compulsion and deliberately ignoring free markets in infrastructure undermine communications wealth and content options despite the general view. The question is merely do we recognize it now, or decades hence, long after other nations have embraced liberalized communications and bypassed us. Rather than a make-work “National Broadband Plan” like the one being presented to Congress this month, the FCC needs instead to act like Alfred Kahn at the old CAB, and present a case for turning out the lights and ratcheting down most functions over there, since airwave scarcity is increasingly disappearing (or created artificially by the agency itself) and since “public airwaves” doesn’t mean much in tomorrow’s world of limitless content access, customization and Everybody Tube broadcasting. The case for a ruthless, drastic purging of FCC’s involvment in and oversight of most things communications needs to be made rather than conspiracy in a make-believe, Emperor’s New Clothes broadband plan. The FCC is too much an impediment in too many important respects for the concrete plan in play to be one of adding rather than paring responsibilities. It and a naive Congress are on a path to turning at least America’s involvement in the Internet into the C&O Canal of Communications.

Capitalism is still too young historically for us to have had our John Locke for the digital age and its long and thin network (and intangible) properties. The short and fat stuff like houses and cars were far easier. Policymakers already destroyed the prospects of liberalization in the electricity industry by trying to mandate hyper-regulatory “retail wheeling” (same for all intents and purposes as net neutrality) in the name of “competition.” Forced neutrality has wrecked one industry, I hope we don’t do it again; but too many special interests gain from regulation. They don’t, for example, even seem to recognize the ways in which properly liberalized electricity grids would also have turbocharged communications liberalization.

Competition in access to content is only one part of the story; competition in the provision of infrastructure and devices drive communications wealth and free speech too.