I thought for reruns week I would re-post something I wrote back in February that fits with our ongoing CFP on Small Town Internet. Problems of governance, especially of small, geographically defined groups, is surprisingingly understudied especially when it comes to our present state of augmented reality. 

The Albany New York Town Hall
The Albany New York Town Hall


It is certainly good news that the Obama Administration has come out strong for net neutrality. The President recently made an announcement that his office would help promote local broadband competition as part of a broader effort to improve the country’s data infrastructure. More specifically, the federal government plans to help municipalities develop their own data networks, fight state laws that prevent municipal governments from offering public broadband options, and help small businesses compete in local markets with companies like Verizon and Time Warner. The chairman of the FCC followed suit by announcing (in WIRED Magazine…?) yesterday that he would be circulating a proposal to apply Title II to telecom companies and mobile phone carriers, effectively making it illegal to throttle connections based on what sorts of services you are connecting to. This is all good news but I’m also hesitant to trust local authorities with my internet connection. Aren’t these the same governments that defend murderous police forces and cooperated with the federal government to shut down political dissent? Why should these organizations control the network? While I am definitely not a fan of huge telecom corporations, I don’t trust my local government either. 

I don’t mean to rain on the parade of those (many of which I know personally) who have fought long and hard for this victory. The people at the forefront of the net neutrality debate generally see these recent events as a good thing and, for the most part, I tend to agree. Having the option to choose from multiple Internet Service Providers, including public ones that do not have to turn a profit, will most certainly bring down the cost and maybe even increase the quality of service. And, if there were something seriously wrong with the quality of my connection, I would much rather try to fight city hall than spend a day lost in a Time Warner phone tree.

When local governments decide to invest in infrastructure they not only increase the standard of living for their residents, they also tend to save lots of money. I grew up in Broward County Florida where they just recently completed their own fiber optic backbone which cost $2.5 million to build but will save them nearly $800,000 a year in leasing fees they used to pay to a private company. This is actually a fairly old strategy. The city I live in now (Troy, New York) decided decades ago that it would build a reservoir for municipal water. It works so well that the city actually turns a profit by selling their water to nearby municipalities who never bothered to think that far ahead. Another nearby town has a small hydroelectric dam that supplies the town with cheap and clean electricity. And of course there’s the United States Postal Service, something that would be making a healthy profit if Congress didn’t sabotage them. This stuff isn’t hard and it isn’t new, but there are some unique aspects of broadband that deserve attention, especially now.

Entrusting the Internet to municipalities seems particularly nerve-wracking given their outright hostile response to protests against their police departments. If public officials are willing to make excuses for murder, it stands to reason they might be willing to shut down the network that helps organize the public’s response. In 2011 BART officials shut down cell phone service in their stations during a protest and, in so doing, inadvertently gave us a preview of what municipally owned internet could look like. Even Troy has had its own share of systematic police terror. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that city officials in my town or yours, would take it upon themselves to shut down the network in the face of protest.

The Internet is equal parts public utility infrastructure, postal service, and free press. It can’t be governed like water, but it certainly shouldn’t be privately sold like cable television either. The old offices and bureaucracies of the 20th century are ill equipped to democratically manage something like the Internet. For-profit companies will inevitably look to give you the least amount of service for the most money, and have no interest in the sort of redistributive justice that public services should provide. That is a straightforward inevitability that does not change with the size of the company. Governments should be the institutions that manage our public goods but, at least right now, they have not proven themselves to be worthy of our trust. What is desperately needed now, and it must be sooner rather than later, is creative approaches to governance. There has to be a firewall (pun intended) between governing bodies and the stewards of the network.

There already exist a myriad of public-private partnerships and community-led broadband initiatives but as far as I know, none of them have really thought deeply about making network administration a democratic process. We need citizen oversight boards and very clear laws about who can and cannot give orders to the people that run and maintain the network. There could even be citizen-run broadband networks where decisions about everything from pay rates to capped speeds are debated and decided upon through an online decision-making system. There has got to be as many ways of governing networks, as there are networks to be governed.

Whatever institution ends up holding the keys to the DNS server cabinets, lets at least try to make them organizations that foster exciting and interesting debate and media creation. At present, too many cities and towns don’t have public access media, Public access television is usually laughed at as hokey or poor quality but the future of public media doesn’t have to be that way. Every city in the United States could have well-appointed production studios open to the public and probably for less money than it cost to establish public libraries a hundred years ago.

I want better broadband, and I want the network to be democratically owned and operated.  I’m happy about the direction we’re going in, but we need to be careful we don’t run from one problem to another. We need to think about the state of our democratic institutions and how much we can really trust them to be the stewards of our digital commons. It is a false dichotomy to assume that we have to either stick with our present oligarchy or hand over that power to municipal governments and smaller for-profit enterprises. There has got to be more participatory and democratic organizational forms out there and now is exactly the time to start building them.

David is on Twitter: @da_banks