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Dot Coms Take Net Neutrality Beating

The hacker ethic has guided, consciously and subconsciously, technology innovation. Not so much anymore.
July 20, 2006

Steven Levy wrote the seminal book on hacker culture in 1984, appropriately titled Hackers. In it, he traces the development of hardware and software hackers from the late-fifties through the mid-eighties, explaining in great detail the unwritten philosophies of the people who helped design and build the network we use today.

Twenty-two years later, it’s still the first book I make my students read before we even begin discussing media in the modern age, because it’s important for them to understand why the Internet was developed the way it was before they start trying to create new media models that use the technology.

There’s an even more important reason for understanding this history, though, particularly in light of the current political debate over net neutrality, which, in simplistic terms, is a debate over whether all information should be allowed to flow freely over the Internet or should be broken up into a tiered system, with certain companies dictating what information can pass quickly through its gateways.

It’s frightening that this debate is happening. It’s even more frightening that old-school cable and telecommunication companies (in AT&T’s case, the very same company that tried to derail the development of the Internet architecture in the fifties) are winning over members of Congress, according to this article on Bloomberg.

And it’s no surprise that old-style, traditional lobbying is winning. Check out this YouTube clip from the Daily Show, as Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, tries to explain how the Internet works, and why corporations should have the ability to segregate traffic. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so scary.

To someone like Stevens, evidently, the hows and whys of the architecture are of little consequence. A book like Levy’s (or ones by Lawrence Lessig, or Katie Hafner, or Nicholas Negroponte, or David Weinberger, or Howard Rheingold) takes too long to digest in the fast-moving world of legislative politics. That is a fault of our process, and not of Stevens.

That leaves us all in a very precarious position, as Congress pushes forward an agenda that would radically change the ways in which our most important communication system works – without fully understanding why that system operates the way that it does.

After all, AT&T, one of the companies pushing for an end to net neutrality, also once told Congress that allowing anyone to add any device to the phone lines (such as an answering machine or a non-AT&T-owned phone) would surely compromise the infrastructure. Had our government listened to that argument, we’d still be using large, black rotary phones that operate on party lines.

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