Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Wild West Web needs a sheriff

By Douglas Rushkoff
updated 2:31 PM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Court strikes down rule that ISPs can't favor some websites over others
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Corporations may have to pay for more bandwidth to stream videos
  • He says FCC should be empowered to make rules to favor real people, nonprofits
  • Rushkoff: The idea of letting Web be a lawless Wild West doesn't work

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) -- This week, champions of the "open net" are decrying a U.S. Court of Appeals decision striking down an FCC ruling that required Internet service providers to be neutral in their restrictions on bandwidth.

The idea here is that giant bandwidth users, like Netflix or YouTube, will be required to pay access providers, like Verizon or Time Warner Cable, for all that video they're streaming to the likes of us. Maybe they'd even be able to buy themselves a special faster lane on the Internet for their traffic.

Of course, "open Web" advocates see in the court decision the beginning of the end of a free and egalitarian Internet. By striking down the provisions of what the industry calls "net neutrality," the court has also struck down an Internet provider's obligation to let all content through its servers. In theory, they can now legally pick and choose whose media makes it to its subscribers. Which would stink.

But this whole issue, and the instantaneous outcry associated with every move by a court or agency, is more complex than it looks on the surface. By casting this issue in such stark terms, those who would defend Internet freedom from the evil corporations may just be playing into the hands of other corporations whose designs on the Internet are no better.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

In fact it seems like just yesterday when nearly all the Internet's champions were telling government to stay away from the net. The Web was home to the revival of Ayn Rand and a new spirit of techno-utopian libertarianism. The idea was: The free market will cure any glitches along the way, as technology firms simply compete to bring us the best.

The 1997 Wired cover story, "The Long Boom," argued that the only impediment to technology-fueled economic growth would be the regulation of the marketplace. "Open good, closed bad. Tattoo it on your forehead." This became a credo of Silicon Valley and the net in general.

People acted as if the Internet just emerged out of culture, like a technological extension of the collective human nervous system, rather than a network that was meticulously planned and built by government and, yes, Al Gore.

Instead the main metaphor for the net would be the Wild West, out of the reach of government meddling.

But as anyone who has studied the Wild West (or even watched "Deadwood") has learned, gold rushes get messy at the end. Eventually a big, corrupt gold mining company starts exploiting all that lawlessness, and all of a sudden it's the formerly independent law-haters turning to the sheriff for help.

And so the defenders of the net now go running for assistance to an FCC that has been systematically excluded at every turn and diminished in its power by some of these very same parties. Slammed down as if it were burning books whenever it considers protecting kids from pornography or interfering in some affair that is being fought out in the marketplace, the FCC has become a derided and timid agency.

That's why the FCC was destined to lose this case. It never even defined the Internet as a "common carrier" -- like a road or telegraph wire -- which would necessarily be regulated in a neutral fashion, permitting passage by all. Yet in its ruling this week, the court even made it clear that the FCC has the ability to define the net as it chooses -- opening the door for the agency to claim the Internet as its domain and enforce net neutrality.

No doubt, Google (which owns YouTube), and Netflix will be encouraging all free citizens of the Internet to push the FCC in this direction. After all, they're the ones whose videos make up a majority of Internet traffic, and who would be forced to pay the tolls -- that is, until they passed them down to us, which would likely lose them some business.

In such an environment, an "open" Web really just means open to corporations, who maintain their monopoly on bandwidth by technological superiority. None of us will have the streaming capability of a Google or Netflix off our home servers -- unless, of course, the FCC regulates things that way. I, for one, would less like to see net neutrality than net favoritism: It's the transmissions between real people, schools, artists and nonprofit organizations that need a special lane on the net if anyone's going to get such a provision.

So before we start shouting about what government and corporations should do to make the Web "open," we'd better remember that one person's "open" may as well be another person's "closed."

If we want a better, freer net, we have to stop responding so impulsively to every action taken in one direction or another -- particularly when there are multibillion-dollar corporations paying handsomely to make us think they're on our side. We have to remember instead who we did hire to protect our interests.

Yes, it's time to go get the sheriff (in this case the FCC), apologize for having stamped on his badge, and tell him he has the authority to regulate this space.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT