A brief history of the Neutral Net

Talin on 2018-07-28

A historical perspective on the importance of Network Neutrality

Once upon a time, before the World Wide Web, there was America Online; there was Prodigy; and there was CompuServe.

These companies, and a few others like them, were the giants who controlled the online world of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Some of you may even remember the colossal efforts that these companies put into marketing their products: computer magazines on every newsstand would contain in their pages an insert containing a CD-ROM which would install the software needed to connect to one of these services. And even if you didn’t buy computer magazines, that was no escape — mailers containing the same CD-ROMs would show up in your mailbox.

These companies had money to burn.

The Internet did exist back then; it had been developed over a decade earlier, as a collaboration between American universities and ARPA, the military research outfit. But the internet wasn’t used very much by ordinary consumers or business people; it was primarily used by college students.

And the Internet wasn’t particularly easy to use either.

Getting signed up to America Online was fairly straightforward — you just put the CD-ROM into your Mac or Windows computer, and it would lead you through a series of friendly prompts and dialogs that would, in the course of an hour or so, get you to a state where you were able to connect to the network and enjoy all of the diverse online content that AOL had to offer.

With the Internet, however, you had to have a certain level of technical knowledge — you had to understand concepts like hostnames, DNS routing, TCP/IP addresses, telnet and FTP. The Internet didn’t provide a unified friendly interface, but rather a fragmented set of features accessed via strange programs such as “Archie” and “Gopher”.

So of course, the Internet gradually faded away into obscurity, and giant companies like AOL and CompuServe are what we use today — wait…no…that’s not what happened?

You see, the Internet had one killer advantage that these other services lacked: it was neutral.

If you had an idea for an online service, you didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to put it on the Internet. You had to of course pay the connection fees, but the Internet didn’t care what you did with that connection, whether it was sending recipes to your mom or downloading porn.

But if you wanted to start an online business on CompuServe, there was no way you could do that without getting CompuServe’s say so. And there was a pretty good chance they would say “no”. And the same was true for the other paid online services.

Oh, they might say yes — but only after extracting an agreement from you to pay a large toll for the privilege of running a business on their network. Or worse, they might simply take your idea and implement it themselves, cutting you out of the loop.

But the most likely outcome would be that they would consider your idea to risky to even contemplate. And of course, the best ideas are usually ones that sound crazy at first.

Ideas like: “why don’t we use the internet to deliver movies?”

“B…b…but you can’t do that! The network is too slow, the traffic costs would drive you out of business in a month!”

Can you say, “chilling effect?”

The people with crazy new ideas had only once choice: use the Internet as a platform for their new idea. (Actually that’s not quite true — there were other choices such as France’s Minitel service, but only if you spoke French.)

Eventually, as people realized that the Internet represented a gold rush opportunity, more and more businesses began to think about using it as the basis for some radical new e-commerce idea. And other companies got into the business of making it easier for ordinary people to connect to the Internet.

As a result of this, the Internet had (compared to the proprietary networks):

Users who wanted access to those exciting new services started to move away from the paid services like CompuServe and instead connect to the Internet — even though, at the time, it was more difficult to do so.

And then the World Wide Web came along and changed everything. Now the Internet had a simple, friendly way to access all of its content. Even the dullest technophobe could learn to click on a link.

Services like AOL were eventually forced to add gateway portals to the web as part of their offerings, but this was too little, too late.

Fast forward to today: July 2018. The Internet has changed a lot.

Where there used to be hundreds of small Internet Service Providers (ISPs) connecting people online, there are now only a handful of giant companies like Comcast and AT&T.

And those companies would like nothing better than to be in the same position that CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy were back then. They would like to be the gatekeepers — the ones you have to ask permission to if you want to put your idea online.

Why do they want this? Well, the short answer is profit. In a capitalist system, companies are always looking for ways to increase shareholder value. They aren’t satisfied with merely charging people for connecting to their network and sending bits and bytes. They also want to charge an additional toll based on the kind of content that you put online. Especially if that content competes with the content being generated by one of their subsidiaries.

I bet there are those at Comcast who long for the days when they were just a cable company, that broadcast content to passive viewers, that completely controlled what subscribers saw (and when they saw it), and didn’t have to worry about all these pesky, disruptive upstarts creating radical new business models.

But isn’t it more profitable to have the internet be a rich, diverse source of ideas and innovation, rather than having a few companies control all of the traffic?

Unfortunately, rich giant companies are full of people who think that they can be the font of all goodness and creativity, and that they don’t need anyone else.

Here’s a personal anecdote: Back in the early 90s, I was at a SIGGRAPH convention where I was arguing with one of the representatives from NewTek. NewTek had created a fantastic product called the Video Toaster which had taken the computing world by storm — it was able to create television effects (wipes, fades, transitions, subtitles and so on) in real time with a few simple controls. Everyone at the show was talking about it.

My argument was “Why don’t you open up your platform? There are so many possible applications — movie editing, compositing, and so on…far more ideas than one single company could ever do. And you’d sell a ton of units.”

And his response was: “No, we’re going to do all of those things ourselves.”

We’re going to do all of those things ourselves.

Here’s the problem with this way of thinking: that’s not how innovation works.

As a general rule, giant companies who have near-monopolies on the market are great at refining existing ideas and making incremental improvements. But they are terrible at starting revolutions. In fact, they work hard to nip potential revolutions in the bud.

I’m no free market absolutist by any means, but technical innovations produced by many small competitors is one area where Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” shines transcendently.

If giant, monopolistic corporations had their way, we’d eventually end up like Imperial China, where all innovation is carefully controlled and regulated, and any new idea is carefully scrutinized, scrubbed and censored to make certain it doesn’t disrupt the status quo.

We need those quiet technical revolutions. We need radical improvements to the way we do things. Yes, the world is a lot better than it was a hundred years ago, but it’s nowhere near good enough — there are a lot of important problems yet to be solved, and that includes the problem of how to sustain our current system without falling into collapse.

Mere incremental change, or even technological stasis, just isn’t going to cut it. We have to do better.

But the Internet has always been neutral, right? So what’s the big problem?

The problem is that there was never a law or regulation that required that the net be neutral — it was a cultural convention, a habit. It started out that way because of its academic origins, and kept going through sheer technical inertia.

But habits and conventions can change over time.

And there are powerful forces with lots of money and influence that very much want to change those conventions. Change them in their favor, at the expense of everyone else. In fact, many of those changes have already happened; the pillars of neutrality that have held up the Internet for decades have been steadily chipped away by legal wrangling and political pressure.

And there are no longer hundreds of ISPs competing for your business. In large parts of the United States, consumers only have one choice of broadband provider: an effective monopoly.

So if we want the network to remain the hotbed of innovation, we’re going to have to formalize some of the informal rules that helped make it what it is. We’re going to have to bolster those informal conventions and habits with actual laws and regulations that have teeth.

So the fight over network neutrality is a fight to preserve the qualities that created the Internet and made it great, qualities that are under threat.

And it’s a cause worth fighting for.

If you want to help in the fight, here are some places to start:

Net Neutrality Net Neutrality Network neutrality-the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels…www.eff.org

Were your lawmakers bought by Big Cable? The FCC's repeal of net neutrality officially kicked in on June 11th. The Internet as we know it won't end overnight…www.battleforthenet.com

Net Neutrality - Common Cause Net Neutrality The open internet, or net neutrality, is the principle of online fairness. It enables everyone to share…www.commoncause.org

More stories by Talin about the early history of personal computing:

Index of Talin’s Autobiographical Essays For folks that like to read things in chronological order. Well, mostly.medium.com