It was hard not to fear the worst when President Barack Obama in 2013 appointed Tom Wheeler chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler was CEO of the wireless industry group CTIA from 1992 to 2004 and CEO of the National Cable Television Association from 1979 to 1984. When the agency formulated its rules on net neutrality, comic John Oliver compared Wheeler's appointment to the FCC with the setting of a dingo to babysit your children.
But Wheeler was not a dingo. Under his supervision, the FCC approved the Open Internet Order, which established net neutrality and classified Broadband Internet Service Providers as "normal network operators", much like fixed-line and mobile operators. Maybe that should not have been so surprising. Wheeler spent some time in the 1[ads1]980s as the CEO of a technology startup called NABU, which offered an AOL-like home computer network service using cable television channels. This experience helped him to understand the importance of open networks, he explained in 2015 in a WIRED project.
His views, however, were not solely influenced by experience. Wheeler's tenure as FCC chairman interrupted his work on a book on the history of network technology and how these networks support and hinder innovation. Wheeler could not finish the book until he left the FCC in 2017. From Gutenberg to Google: The Story of Our Future has finally arrived this month. WIRED spoke with Wheeler about his work and what the history of information technology tells us is how to regulate today's information giants like AT & T, Comcast, Google and Facebook.
WIRED: They write information networks over three epochs: the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, then the emergence of railway and telegraph networks in industry, and finally the rise of the modern digital information age. What sets our era apart from previous eras?
Tom Wheeler: I started writing this book before I became chairman of the FCC and had to put it aside during my tenure. If it had been previously published, everything would have revolved around the power of distributed networks. Now it's about how networks have led to a non-physical centralization of economic activity.
Traditionally, networks have always been a centralizing force. The hub of the network was once the place where the railroads were connected or where the phone calls were made. The railroad drove to a point where the freight cars were changed to another line. At that time, economic activity developed. The telephone went to a central office, which then relocated it to another line, and the business activity centered around this central switching point. Now the node of the network has moved out so that the ultimate node is the person, and the user chooses to access information that itself is not physically centralized. It used to be the physical network that has been centralized, now it's something that focuses on the physical network that is being centralized.
Amazon has 500 private label products. Did you know that? 500 private label products. You see everything that is sold. They say, "Hey, all those batteries are selling, I'm going to have an Amazon battery, and that's the one I'm going to promote." All of this can be attributed to the control of the information that they could use.
Data is the new capital of the 21st century. Amazon has more of the crucial assets than Walmart. The estate is not what you have on your shelves. The asset is not the shops and parking you have. The benefit is the information you have about your customers that allows you to specifically search for content and develop content that you know to be attractive to them, be it [the Amazon Prime video series] from Bosch or batteries.
WIRED: The FCC approved the Open Internet Order when you chaired, imposing net neutrality as a control over the centralizing power of broadband networks. However, it only covers the carriers, not the platforms. Do we also need network neutrality for platforms?
TW: I think the regulators need to think about the entirety of the digital economic environment. When I chaired the FCC, we could only deal with the networks, because that was our statute. I think there are two basic concepts that are universal for both networks and platforms, and that we need rules for protection.
One is the duty to act. They talked about net neutrality, the demand that essential networks have non-discriminatory access. The first electronic network was the Telegraph. In 1860, Congress passed a law that imposed net neutrality on the telegraph, stating that he could not choose whom to attach, but that he would use a non-discriminatory first-come-first-served first-come Had to grant access. The need for this concept has not changed as we moved from the telegraph's points and strokes to the phone's analogue waveforms to the ones and zeros of the Internet.
There is also a need for openness to bottlenecks in the platforms that use the network. What happens now is that you have platforms that aggregate and hoard all sorts of information about you and me and are able to gain a dominant position by controlling access to that information. Just as there should be open access to the networks, there should be open access to this information. I do not say in vain, but this is an idea that goes back hundreds of years. As we came out of the Dark Ages, English Common Law developed the concept that the man who crossed the river had to provide a transport for everyone that was non-discriminatory. The guy who ran the tavern or inn along the road had to provide all protection and food. Not in vain, but he had to create a non-discriminatory basis. This kind of concept still works today.
The other is the duty to care. As a provider of a service to you, I have a responsibility to anticipate and mitigate any damage caused by my service. This is especially true if you think about the platform and all your private information they collect. How do you stop that from having harmful effects? I'm talking in the book about how, in the early days of the railroad, when the steam engine crossed farmland, hot ashes broke out, setting fire to hay and barns and houses. The concept of negligence was put into effect on the basis of this due diligence: "Okay, you know it spits ash, what do you do to mitigate that?" The answer was that the railroads set up a screen to catch the ashes.
TW: No, no. But I say that they are obliged to deal with them. The term "common carrier" is often used for many things, but I do not think they are ordinary carriers. I just believe that they have a responsibility not to hoard and make their product available.
When we moved from agrarian mercantilism to the industrial age, everyone woke up and realized that the rules that worked in a trading society did not work for industrial society. So we got antitrust laws, consumer protection laws, worker protection laws, clean food and so on. Now we see ourselves in an informational period, in which also the rules of the industrial time prove to be inadequate, and therefore we must have the same kind of new thinking of laying down rules for new challenges, as we did 150 years ago at the beginning of the industrial area have done.
WIRED: But a lot of old thinking still seems useful. You mentioned English customary law, but I have seen evidence that the idea of a common carrier goes back to ancient Rome. It seems that there are universal concepts that can be applied.
TW: Correct. There are these permanent structures, the duty to act, the due diligence. But the question is how to apply these security concepts in a new reality. The forwarders have successfully sold the bill stating that "digitally does things differently". No, but the concept was sold successfully. The platform companies have successfully sold the concept that they can dispose of this non-physical centralization while avoiding the concepts of industrial antitrust law and anti-centralization. What I mean by that is that we have to take those concepts and make sure they apply in the new era.
WIRED: Should there be a single framework for networks and platforms, or are they different? enough to demand other laws and enforcement officials: the FTC for platforms and the FCC for networks?
TW: What we need is a holistic approach that states that "we will address all levels" but probably it also states "we will expect what will be achieved and not to the one who does it. "For example, if you have a company like AT & T, both in the network and in content, you need to look at each of these activities using common concepts. You may need to have special applications of these concepts.
WIRED: Do we need a new regulatory system for this? The FTC and FCC may not have the right structures. Do we need a new regulator or do we need to shake up these regulators in any way?
TW: I think we need to look at whether the expectations of the digital age are screwed to a structure In an industrial age with industrial expectations, it is indeed possible. For example, the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission, is responsible for unfair or deceptive acts and practices for the entire economy. This means that the FTC has the right to label your shirt for the use of bleach, and since the abolition of the Open Internet rules, your operator's conduct in relation to open access is also responsible. You have to ask yourself if you can bring digital concepts to an industrial agency. I think that is one of the debates we will soon have.