Jesse Hirsh on Mon, 12 Aug 2002 17:58:03 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Free Bandwidth

Free Bandwidth,
a discussion paper by Jesse Hirsh

The public interest and the social good are things often referred to yet
not always pursued. We usually recognize that humans have rights, and that
those rights include housing, food, and a general quality of life.

The public Internet is something that is also assumed, and similarly rarely
pursued. We recognize that the public uses the Internet, but is the
Internet in anyway public? Do we and can we recognize that communication is
also a right?

If we want to have a social good or public interest in our network society,
than we need the Internet to be "public", in the same way we think of the
airwaves as being in the public domain and subject to regulation.

In order for the Internet to be public, bandwidth must be free.

Free as in subsidized. Costs still exist, and its important to account for
these costs, but its also crucial to create an environment in which the
public (interest) can exist, let alone flourish. We talk about the erosion
of sovereignty and the encroachment of culture, but what are we doing about
it? Creating a public Internet (itself an extension of public space) by
subsidizing broadband connections is one step in that direction.

The catalytic element in this equation is literacy. The reason we subsidize
education (at all levels from kindergarten on up) is because we want
meaningful members in our society. Now mind you, at times school does seem
and feel like its purpose is to produce cogs for the working world, but in
essence, at least in its mandate, its role is to create responsible
(literate) members of our society.

However, present reality what it is, we live in a network society. Media
makes everything (especially reality) and those who have media literacy are
those who are generally able to do well.

In fact, lets be more precise, those who have Internet literacy, even know
how to run their own Internet server, and say know what a "root" account
is, those people tend to be more empowered in our current world. They tend
to know where they are, and how to get where they want to go. Informational
power in our society can lead directly to cultural, economic, and even
political power.

That's why maybe the solution is to give it out, hook them up, spend the
dough to get everyone online and literate when it comes to media. Note I
keep using the world "literacy". The point is not to create spammers or
brain-dead online consumers. Rather the issue is about teaching people who
they can create, how they can communicate, how they can do business with
people far away.

Perhaps then its not unresonable to suggest, even demand, that the ability
to communicatie is an inherent and inalienable right that all humans must

So how does such a telecommunications regime that provides free bandwidth
come about? On the supply (money) side, you'd probably have to have taxes.

As a means of beginning to address global warming, increase taxes on
private and fossil-fueled transportation to subsidize bandwidth. Gasoline,
oil, automobiles, roadways, all forms of private polluting transportation.
Then take that money and use it to subsidize bandwidth and public

Another approach, which is articulated in a parrallel discussion paper,
would be a tax on Intellectual Property. The combination of these two
policies could create a new regulatory regime. [*]

A regime that rather than sit on its hands while big business plunders and
commits accounting fraud, instead seeks to empower communities and foster a
genuine competitive market environment. This regulatory regime might have
two halfs, one focused on facilitating, the other on enforcement. And in
both roles, the "agency" that carries out this mandate, can be
community-based, distributed, and based on peer-review, in a similar manner
as to how the Internet operates itself.

Whether limiting the intrusiveness of spam and other unsolicited commercial
requests, or helping young and old learn to use the media and its
environment, a distributed community regulatory agency could play a role in
protecting and providing a public (interest) Internet.

Similarly, one would not want to see existing privately-held
telecommunication monopolies get bigger on the backs of the taxpayer. Maybe
a voucher system, that let each user (re: citizen) decide where their
bandwidth would be supplied from and by whom, making it more feasable for
there to be smaller players, and then add to that an additional
"infrastructure" fund that encourages people to develop alternative (for
example wireless) infrastructure.

Clearly all of this is going to cost a lot of money, but the payback is
worth it. Think of it as an investment in the future, as its an investment
in users (citizens), who are the defining characteristic of the system
(society). If managed correctly instead of sticking with the monopolies
we've always had, smaller and more agile outfits could emerge and prosper.

Ironically one only has to look towards radio and television for models of
public resources which have operated as a result of subsidization. In these
media both public and private broadcasters have effectively allowed either
the taxpayer or advertisers to subsdize what appears to the consumer as
relatively free information. Of course all of this began with the premise
that the airwaves are themselves in the public domain, and with that
assumption has come heavy regulation (of radio and television).

The Internet however has had a different course. While also having its
start in government funded initiatives, it was much more rapidly handed
over to the private sector, and from a very early stage its entire
infrastructure was in private hands. Governments, led by politicians
elected by television and newspapers, allowed the private sector to run
rampant, and build all sorts of crazy schemes, most larger than life, and
most resulting in bankruptcies and investigations of accounting fraud.

Certainly two truisms that have come out of the great Internet bubble of
the late 1990s are that online advertisments do not subsidize the medium,
and that left to the private sector, the Internet will be nothing more than
a grand, in-your-face-pop-up-porn stip mall.

Then of course there is the peer-to-peer phenomena which flies in the face
of all corporate logic when it comes to the Internet. Rather than go to
central distributors for high-priced products, users would rather share
freely amongst themselves, computer to computer, with minimal commercial
activity, and explosive cultural effects. Music, Videos, Software, Texts,
and Images spread as rapidly as they can across all the computers on the
net. One can't imagine the spread of culture working at a faster pace.

And yet the telecommunications costs are huge. Largely due to the existing
hierarchical design of the Internet. Nonetheless, when the peer-to-peer
explosion happened, starting with Napster, the bills for bandwidth started
hitting ISPs and other telecom firms who had not anticipated such a large
increase in what is essentially unprofitable traffic.

That's where the model fell apart: telecommunication companies are either
going bankrupt, or taking extreme cost-cutting measures to survive, and the
regulatory regime itself is in a crisis of legitimacy as it appears
powerless to engage or influence the economic and social forces that are
changing our world.

So comes a time when ludicrous ideas are considered, and alternate models
are entertained. Those cash-strapped companies that are still around will
inevitably start charging more money for Internet connections, and further
pro-rate usage, so that the more you do, the more you pay. A pay-per-usage
system that equates economic status with communications ability.

Yet it is at times like this that we can step back and see the consequences
of such actions. We are still at an early stage in the development of the
Internet, and to exclude persons from it, or restrict what can be done with
it, seems to be the type of crippling mistake that it would take a lifetime
to recover from.

The erosion of the public sphere must be stopped and reversed. What we need
from our public institutions is the leadership to chart a new regulatory
regime that serves the interest of our entire society, i.e. the social

One way to catalyze this process would be to introduce a system of
public-subsidization of bandwidth that would allow members of our society
to freely explore and create their space in this emerging media
environment. Doing so would go a long way in helping to revive the
democracy we desire in our political system and our world.


Written in Toronto over the Summer of 2002

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