Timothy M. Denton

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Why is the Internet invisible to the professions?

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Today's Hi and Lois says it all. Lois: "What's on TV tonight?" [The each member of the  family is watching their own device] "Who cares?" asks Chip the teenaged son. Who cares indeed?

 

 

Sometimes the geniuses who draw and write comic strips capture profound truths. Who cares what's on television tonight! If you are cruising the Internet, everything in the world is on "television" tonight.

The cartoon strip captures the vast social changes we are undergoing as we move away from broadcast television, with its schedules, and 300 channels for immense monthly bills.

And yet, for important professional groups, the Internet is invisible. I have been trying to think about why.They benefit from it, they love it, but large elements of the intelligentsia are utterly clueless about it. I have decided that the cluelessness of some professions is part of a professional deformation.

There are three groups of people with which I am concerned: lawyers, economists, and engineers.

1) lawyers

Lawyers work with pre-existing legal categories. They look to the past. Is it a common carrier, or a broadcaster? Those are the only types of communication they know, part from printing.  If the Internet has not been described in a statute, then it has not yet been conceived in legal terms, and must be made to fit existing categories. Moreover, if a legal case about the Net has not reached a sufficiently high court with a sufficiently important decision emanating from it, then they are under no obligation to trouble themselves with inventing a new category to describe the Internet.The US Supreme Court tried and decided upon the nature of the Internet in Reno vs ACLU 521 US 844 ( https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/521/844/case.html) in such a way as to prevent its ever being categorized as a form of broadcasting.

 

In Canada, the nature of the Internet has not been litigated to the Supreme Court, so it remains possible for the CRTC to rely on its statute: moving pictures are "programming", and "programming is "broadcasting", so by their leave they do not licence every Canadian web site. They actually believe this.

The legal profession will pound the internet into whatever mould will win them the case, and the judgement putting an end to argument has not yet arisen.

2) economists

No group is more arrogantly sure of itself since Jesuits of the 18th century, except possibly intellectual property lawyers. Everything is markets, firms, and competition, market entry and exit. Moreover, no profession - to make a vast generalization -  has less interest or curiosity in what makes the Internet distinct. Should carriage be separated from content? For example, the world wide web is a distinct application from the TCP/IP protocol layer. The Web is not the Internet. But if the content and the carriage are technically separate, does this fact have any bearing on how firms should be organized? If carriage is integrated with content, if Bell delivers television, then for an economist there is no intellectual standpoint from which to criticize this arrangement. If the integration of carriage and content in one firm makes money, then competition is just a matter of titans bashing it out for market share (Rogers versus Bell, cable versus phone company). The fact that innovation might be stifled by this arrangement is of no concern. That business arrangements run counter to the separation of content from carriage, which is how the Internet is engineered,  is of no consequence for their thinking.

My speculation is that economics is a sort of "abstraction layer" for thinking about human activity. Technology is not specifically encompassed within its vision. Schumpeter speaks of creative destruction, how competition is not about everyone producing widgets more efficiently, but of innovation replacing the need for widgets entirely. I wish some of that kind of thinking might have informed the vision of the economists who plead before the CRTC. Most of what we heard was a Whiggish defence of current arrangements as the best of all possible worlds, and any changeto those arrangements were market distortions. That the whole apparatus of telecommunications rests on a set of legal privileges - to hold spectrum licences, to cut up streets, to emplace ducts and wires, to erect towers, seemed never to affect the economists' stout defence of the "market", as if it were a natural occurrence of immemorial age, rather than a recent contrivance of human decision.

3) engineers

A few engineers made the Internet, and when the engineers of the Bell system saw what the engineers of the Internet had done, the Bell-heads reacted in profound dislike. It was inferior to the phone system in every respect except one, that it was a good enough language for computers to speak to each other in, and the phone system was not. Since most of the traffic on the world today is among computers, and the bandwidth occupied by voice traffic is disappearing into the noise, the Internet has prevailed. Thus some engineers really get the Internet, the telephone engineers used to hate it, but most of them have retired.

The primary offence of the Internet is to strip scarcity rents out of almost any business situation, such as broadcast licences, long distance telephone competition, the music industry, and newspapers.

Since lawyers and economists are hired to defend existing money flows, they have neither interest nor inclination to understand the Internet on its own terms. They have every interest to conceive it in terms borrowed from other statutes, or economic doctrines. They have no professional training in it; they scarcely know a domain name from a website from an IP address, and in the calculations they must make, engineering scarcely matters.

This is my try at explaining why the professions most often hired to explain things to regulators have so little understanding of what this transmuting artifact the Internet is.

I would benefit from hearing those who agree or disagree. I am probing a mystery here. Why is it that the well-defined nature of the Internet matters so little to decision makers?

 By "well defined" I refer you to "A brief history of the Internet", written by the people who created it.

 There is a saying that "you will never get a man to understand what he is paid not to understand".

 

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Monday, 26 August 2019
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