The 20th anniversary of the commercial Internet arrives at the end of this month. In 1995, the NSFNET, the government-operated forerunner of what we now take for granted as "the Internet," was decommissioned and the Internet was effectively denationalized. The next 20 years saw an exponential explosion in innovation that continues to this day, in the absence of heavy-handed government regulation or interference. A group of "tech elders"—figures with a rich and continuing history of helping to create, implement, articulate, and demonstrate the immense power of cyberspace to revolutionize our world—plan to celebrate the occassion with a first recognition of "Internet Independence Day" on April 30. For a list of the tech elders, scroll below. The event will be livestreamed on April 30 at 6 p.m. ET. Watch here.
The goal of the event is to draw attention to the recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to turn itself into the Federal Computer Commission and regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under rules and regulations originally created in the 1930s and applied to old-time telephone companies. If the past two decades prove anything, they prove that Internet got great when the government got out.
In 1996, one of the tech elders, John Perry Barlow, issued "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. At a time when governments were trying to reassert control of the Internet, Barlow consciously channeled one of the foundational documents of American history and likened attempts by governments to control the Internet to the British Empire trying to restrain its New World colonists back in the day.
Today, that parallel sadly still holds and, given the FCC's ham-handed actions in the name of "Net Neutrality," may be even more appropriate than ever.
Think of it. The FCC is the agent of a powerful, dysfunctional, remote, and heavily indebted government with a large military. The leader of that government explicitly seeks to reassert authority over distant and little understood settlements established by former subjects. Historians looking back at the present moment will have a difficult time finding many meaningful distinctions between the two periods, because nothing has changed in human nature or the nature of government dysfunction since 1776.
Governments relying on borders as the source of power do not view the transformative potential of frictionless global communication or the opportunity associated with a New World with the same enthusiasm as their citizens. The same anxieties about waning influence, a desire to impose taxes, and a felt need to regulate commerce that stoked the tension between King George III and the American colonists undergird the return of government control over the Internet.
If President Barack Obama made his desire for Title II regulation explicitly known to the technically independent FCC, the agency's chairman, Tom Wheeler, is perfectly happy to act as the royal governor of the Internet. Indeed, he even has referred to himself as the new "referee on the field" for "the most powerful communication platform in the history of mankind." The new FCC regulations, already challenged in court just as previous attempts at control have been, follow the usual pattern of claiming a crisis that only government can solve.
To the extent that problems exist in cyberspace—and they always will, as long as the Internet is constantly growing, evolving, and expanding—they are being handled via a mix of consumer advocacy, business competition, and technological innovation. For all the fears and chatter about just how awful current ISPs are, there are two decades we can look back on to see how the Internet flourished after government vacated the territory.
Twenty years of Internet independence won the communicating public a thousand-fold improvement versus the 56Kbps dial-up modems available in 1995. Access options now exceed the 45Mbps capacity of Internet backbone links in 1995. A similar accomplishment over the next 20 years requires expanding Internet access options to match the 100Gbps link capacity underlying today's Internet backbone.
Compare how the privatized Internet has developed to the communication capacity of the traditional telephone network, which has been tightly governed by the industrial policy model associated with the Communication Act of 1934. The proliferation of Internet-enabled communication options compares to $0.45 per minute long distance, $1.10 per minute international telephone calls, and the 10Mbps data connections that cost $10,000 per month as Title II services in 1995. For all the decades the FCC tightly regulated it and helped sustain its monopoly status, "the telephone company" was a running joke in American culture, shorthand for businessess that were slow to innovate, expensive, and completely insensitive to customer desires or satisfaction. "We don't care," said Lily Tomlin's phone operator character Ernestine in the 1970s. "We don't have to. We're the phone company."
The prospect of the government admitting that human thought and cyberspace represent "locations" of an inalienable human right to self-determination does not seem high. Implementing consent of the governed last time required declaring independence from British rule. Bringing the ideals underlying the American experiment up to date with technology requires an Internet independence movement that will fight for and win recognition of individual sovereignty in cyberspace. As Barlow noted in his "Declaration," the Internet makes individual sovereignty possible through the same mutual recognition of rights that creates national sovereignty. We grant ourselves rights by recognizing the rights of others.
In the first American Revolution, the most powerful military on the planet proved insufficient to contain the self-determination of 3 million colonists on the East Coast of North America. Today, the Internet as a new means of self-determination already reaches 3 billion people, or nearly half a global population. The cause of self-determination remains the most powerful force on the planet, and the Internet provides a new means for us all to achieve the ideals of another great foundational document of the United States. Like the Constitution, the Internet is already helping to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
That can all change, just as FCC rules and government interference can change. Now more than ever, we need to celebrate Internet Independence Day and fight to maintain for the next 20 years and the next 200.
The first celebration of Internet Independence Day will be livestreamed by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on April 30 at 6 p.m. ET. Watch here.
The "tech elders" include the following individuals:
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, 8×8
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