digiblade

Friday, June 16, 2006

Could the architecture of the telecom system resemble the political system around it ?

Posted by Martin Geddes The AT&T (as opposed to at&t) years reflected the military-industrial era. A “commanding height” of the Cold War was the flow of information, and just like the interstate highways. AT&T was as much a creature of the government as rational free-market economics. The break-up of AT&T as well as the 1996 act both chose to cleave the industry across the connectivity grain rather than with it. The current situation was 30 years in the making. As I rather undiplomatically stated, it’s a uniquely American mess that can only be solved by a uniquely American solution. But it’s really much deeper than that. From my shallow knowledge of American history, and short exposure to American culure, I’ve come to the following (probably widely unwelcome and possibly wildy wrong) conclusions. Network Neutrality is just a digital-era manifestation of much longer-running sores within the American political system and psyche.

• The outcome of the Civil War was that everyone lost. No winners, not even a draw. One side lost its soul, and the other its honour. It set the stage for a fundamental change from the United States to the United State. • The Seventeenth Amendment upset the carefully-crafted balance of power between the public, states, federal government (executive), legislature and judiciary. The US is a four-legged constitutional stool that the public is sat upon. (This may explain why it is one of — debatably, the — longest continuously established democracy). But it’s now an uncomfortably wobbly stool. • This set the stage for an immediate assault on personal freedom, which continues today in other forms. Competing jurisdictions would have ensured the migration of ethanolics and psychedelics to happier places. • The same over-reaching federal state also encroached into a whole bunch of other areas it would best have been kept away from, notably communications policy. • The rest, as they say, is history.
I can’t but help enjoy the irony of the often statist/corporatist/collectivist European Union being a paragon of devolved government, competing regulatory regimes and voluntary cross-border cooperation compared to the centrally planned US communications economy. If the FCC were tossed onto the scrap heap, and those powers returned to the states, my American friends would find that the Network Neutrality issue would rapidly cease to have any political significance. By making the prizes of Federal Telecom Lotto so big, the temptation to fiddle with the rules of the game has become overwhelming. Anyone fancy some salty tea? PS - Next overtly political Telepocalypse post: March 2009. I promise to keep my libertarian ways quiet until then. (Note that does mean I don’t fit into US Dem/Rep political stereotypes.) PPS - I’ll probably offend lots of people, but the short version is “Nice country, great people, shame about the government.” (For the UK, it’s “Nice people, great country, shame about the government”, and Italy is “Great people, great country, what government?” Only kidding! Calm down!) UPDATE: Something many readers won’t be aware of is the different ways the US and EU constitutions work. As I understand it, the commerce clause of the US constitution means that if it relates to interstate commerce (and practically everything in a networked globalised economy does), then it “goes federal” by default. In Europe, it’s different. The subsidiarity principle means everything should (in theory) be done at the lowest possible level of government. Just because something has an international dimension, it doesn’t mean that the EU gets full power over it. And even where the EU legislates, it merely sets out the general requirements and objectives, and each nation translates that into local law. Again, scope is retained for competing implementations and jurisdictions. I’m no fan of the eurocracy, but it’s illuminating nonetheless to see the practical consequences of different constitutional frameworks. UPDATE: That means the EU constitution is “edge-based”, and the US one doesn’t scale. Oops. Hey, just skip a generation and move straight to anarchism: peer-to-peer contracts, and a state whose only function is to enforce them.

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