(I guess it’s about time I set down this bit of history. In the context of the Net Neutrality debate it seems like something which ought to be made public, and as the youngest participant in these events I may eventually become the last surviving eyewitness. Photo to right is me in 1979 with hair and everything.)
In 1979 I was a junior at Franklin and Marshall College. I was also a fledgling Science Fiction writer with several professionally published stories, a libertarian activist who had worked on a couple of campaigns and formed a chapter of Students of a Libertarian Society and also what passed for a hacker in those early days of computers. Somehow that summer I lucked into the perfect internship in Washington, DC. Because I attended the right high school and with some pull from my mother, who worked for Senator Mac Mathias, I got an internship as a writer and editor for What’s Next newsletter published by the Congressional Clearing House on the Future, which was largely under the oversight of a dynamic young Congressman named Al Gore.
Gore and I had both attended St. Albans School in DC, about 10 years apart. At that point he was in his second term in the House of Representatives and he had decided that his way to make a mark was to become the leading Congressional voice for the emerging world of high tech. The Congressional Clearing House on the Future was his vehicle for doing this. It basically brought in information from the frontiers of science, analyzed it and put it into a form where busy politicians could figure out what to think about it. My job was to do research and write introductory articles on a wide variety of topics, including satellites, solar energy, microwaves, charged particle beam weapons, space exploration and research, and the frontiers of computers and communications. I was good at taking technical topics and summarizing them for a more general audience and got lots of practice at it while I was with the CCF.
As a lowly intern I really had very little direct contact with Congressman Gore. He did call on the phone a few times and I got to field a couple of technical questions in areas where I had some expertise. Apparently somewhere along the way someone must have passed on to him that I knew more about computers than anyone else on staff and I guess I had proved pretty adept at using LexisNexis (one of the very first major online databases) for research, plus I had a background in computer typesetting. So I got pegged to do a lot of work relating to a series of meetings called the Chautauquas for Congress sponsored by CCF and Rep. Gore. These meetings had begun in March and I came in towards the end. They brought together experts from private industry, government, the military, academia and the press to discuss emerging aspects of technology. One of those was computers and communications, and it was the results of that meeting which gave Al Gore some claim to having invented the internet, though to be fair his role in sponsoring the chautauquas was more that of a facilitator who brought the work of many inventors together than that of an actual inventor.
The primary session on computers and telecommunication had taken place in March and I didn’t get to CCF until May, but I got to be involved in the processing of reports from the meetings so I was one of the first people to see the very speculative early proposals for what would become the internet and I got to work at the later sessions, including the June meeting where final reports on various topics were presented. Admittedly, my role at those sessions was mostly to make sure chairs and tables were set up and that snacks were on hand, but I had also gone through the reports and helped prepare summaries of some very interesting discussions, and I got to stand in the back and hear the presentations.
It was the initial panel discussions at the Chautauquas which had led to the first consensus on what would emerge not long afterward as the fledgling internet. The ideas developed there would soon be implemented and the result was a shared network which first became accessible to a rapidly growing segment of the public in the form of Usenet in the early 1980s. It was that concept, of adopting common protocols to bring together existing private and government networks which created the internet as we know it and for which Al Gore has taken credit with some justification, as the point man on bringing all these experts together through these Chautauquas. I guess I can take some small credit to for helping the process along. Looking back at what was discussed at the time it surprises me how perceptive many of the participants were about the implications of technology which was really only just beginning to emerge and also how quickly the ideas were put into action. Usenet first went online by the end of that year.
Although, as a libertarian, I am chronically skeptical of the efforts of government, this experience was one which demonstrated how positive the role of government can be when it is primarily a passive and not an activist role. All the Chautauquas did was to bring people together to share information. There were no official conclusions, no real legislative outcome, no government initiatives to create the internet, just a promotion of ideas and innovation coordinated from a position of governmental neutrality. It did informally give the stamp of approval to government agencies and even the military in opening up their networks and sharing technology, but what it did not do was lay out rules and regulations, though Gore did eventually author legislation formalizing some of the relaxation of access required. The technical and administrative aspects of the internet were left to develop naturally.
Since that time this has pretty much been the rule of the internet. It’s the wild west. Everyone does what they want to do and no one, including the government, looks at it too closely. The benefits it has produced are enormous. It’s the great revolutionary development of its time on a par with the train and the automobile. It seems almost crazy to do anything which might interfere with it. For a government it might even be a terribly dangerous thing to attempt.
Yet today we see government attempting to get more heavily involved. With the passage of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act we’ve seen government working as a hired thug for corporate interests attempting to control dissemination of data through high-speed transfer portals like BitTorrent. Congress is considering even more draconian legislation to control internet content in Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) very broad Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. And most recently the FCC has weighed in with its attempt to impose “net neutrality”, ostensibly to protect the interests of citizens, but with the potential to make the government the arbiter of bandwidth allocation and from there of every aspect of access and functionality on the net. Further legislation and further regulation from the FCC is expected and increasingly the focus seems to be shifting to regulating content itself. This carries disturbing implications for free speech in the medium which has become the dominant outlet for public speech in the world.
When the internet was created, this level of government involvement was never the intent. The conclusion coming out of the Chautauquas was that great things would happen if we opened up the netwroks and lifted restrictions and let the people have free and unfettered access to this kind of network, even if at the time we could barely conceive of what it would become. And the cornerstone of the internet as it was created was neutrality. Not as imposed by the government to try to level the playing field according to some contrived criteria, but as it developed naturally by not restricting access and opportunity. That hands-off approach is the definition of true net neutrality.
When asked what role government should play in this process, Professor Manley Irwin, who was on the Panel on Information and Communication commented “The single most important action Congress can take is to get out of the way.” That approach worked brilliantly for 30 years and has brought us incalculable benefits. What justification is there for changing it now?