Happy Internet Independence Day?

By Peter Bernstein April 30, 2015

For those who might be unaware, today marks the 20th anniversary of the 1995 decision to privatize the Internet in the U.S.  Hence, this date has gained rightful credence as the one on which the commercial Internet was created.  For those of us of a certain age, it is hard to believe given what has transpired in the intervening years, how not so long ago the Worldwide Web (WWW) was literally and figuratively not open to the public.  Time certainly flies when you are having fun, or does it?

The reason for the rhetorical question is that a delegation of the "Tech Innovators" is scheduled to meet with members of Congress in Washington, D.C. today with two objectives:

  • Further efforts to declare April 30 "Internet Independence Day"
  • Undo what they believe is the “regulatory overreach” employed by the FCC in its Open Internet Order.

The powwows on Capitol Hill follow an April 16, 2015 letter to Congress asking for a formal recognition of the 20th anniversary of the April 30, 1995 decision to privatize the Internet. By celebrating the birth of the commercial Internet the Innovators believe congressmen will feel motivated to pass new policy that overrides the FCC's rules and restores the independent nature of the Internet.

These elders who will be making the rounds are certainly an illustrious group. They include:

  • John Perry Barlow, lyricist and activist
  • Mark Cuban, founder, AXS TV
  • Tim Draper, founder, Draper Fisher Jurvetson
  • Tom Evslin, founder & former, CEO ITXC
  • Dave Farber, professor emeritus, CMU and Board Member ISOC
  • Charlie Giancarlo, senior advisor, Silver Lake
  • George Gilder, author
  • John Gilmore, activist
  • Doug Humphrey, co-founder Digex, Cidera
  • Bryan Martin, chairman and CTO, 8x8
  • Scott McNealy, co-founder, SUN Microsystems
  • Bob Metcalfe, professor, University of Texas and inventor of Ethernet
  • Jeff Pulver, co-founder, Zula and Vonage
  • Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes, and former, CTO Microsoft

The day is concluding at 6:00 pm with the "Internet Independence Day Kick off Reception" at the Center for Strategic and International Studies which is free for those who happen to be in the area; it’s a great place to get autographs from some really famous tech folks, and will be streamed live in case physical presence in D.C. is not on your calendar for today. 

"Our goals today are quite simple and can be summarized in three points," said Daniel Berninger, the founder of VCXC who convened the Tech Innovators.  He added that, "We want to exert pressure on Congress to officially name April 30 Internet Independence Day; further discussions regarding a bipartisan bill that would undo rules by the FCC that repurpose Depression-era industrial policy meant to address a monopoly in voice-transmission technology; and begin moving the discussion towards forward-thinking policy built to facilitate the growth and capacity America needs to replicate the past twenty years of success."  

If nothing else you have to admire the passion this group is bringing to this dance. As Berninger made clear in a Wednesday op-ed, "the arrogance and utter incongruity of declaring Internet and telephone networks equivalent has led a group of friends, all of them reluctant activists, to convene an effort to restore Internet independence."

The fervency is also exemplified by comments from Jeff Pulver who noted: "Policymakers should do everything to protect the open Internet – no one argues that – but we are doing the American public a disservice if we insist that the FCC's approach is the best one...It not only disregards the past twenty years of success of a private Internet treated as an information service, it ignores the lessons learned a decade ago in the process that led to the 'Pulver Order' in 2004. In that case, the FCC declared voice services like Free World Dialup were not 'telecommunication services' after ten years of deliberating and hindering investment, a decision that unleashed a swirl of entrepreneurial activity that would bring consumers innovative, new services that they enjoy today. By highlighting successes like this, I hope that we can advance sensible policy that drives a new wave of innovation and investment that will support the next generation of entrepreneurs."

Image via Shutterstock

While the group is looking for a bi-partisan approach, realities are that partisanship has already become a significant part of the policy debates on the efficacy of the FCC’s net neutrality initiative. In addition, and at the risk of being both cynical and repetitive, this issue is not one that averagecitizens are going to see as make or break when casting their ballots at the national level next year. As I have noted on various occasions in which legislation has been passed, holding hearings and even marking up bills are sub-optimal politically since they would dry up a treasure trove of potential campaign contributions. 

Realities are that getting to a regulatory regime that balances Internet freedom with the desires of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to have cost causers become cost bearers, particularly looking at a future where streamed and interactive video become more if not the most common way of consuming multiple and multimedia content—which will place an even larger burden on ISPs to greatly expand their network capacity and support systems— is vexing to say the least. This is surely something FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler knows all too well, as one interest groups “level playing field” is always another’s competitive disadvantage. 

It will be interesting to see what we are celebrating on April 30, 2016, and whether the Innovators are back for a return visit.  Happy Internet Independence Day!

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino
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