The Return of the Anti-Snark… and where’s my open access?

I’ve gotten a lot of comments, most of them off-line and in-person, about my post, “Snarky won’t save the Internet.”

Most recently, someone pointed to an editorial in today’s LA Times, “Weighing High-Tech Bills in Analog,” that seems to be inspired by the snarkfest. It takes as its starting point Congress’s ignorance when it comes to media technology, so one could imagine the “series of tubes” meme giving the editors the idea.

This editorial is actually evidence of exactly the problem I was talking about. The reason we are getting bad policy from Congress is not because Senators and Representatives are stupid are old, but because they are pushing legislation on behalf of the phone companies. (It’s like saying, as the article does, that the purpose of the 1996 Telecommunications Act was to spur competition but, shockingly, wound up leading to consolidation.)

The proper response to the problem with tech legislation isn’t a comic book explaining the Internet to members of Congress, it’s lobbying reform and grassroots pressure.

I didn’t write the original anti-snark piece because I am opposed to funny. I am in favor of humor as a weapon against a more-powerful enemy or to get someone’s attention before following up with more information. So I drew back my anti-snarkism a bit when The Daily Show followed up it’s anti-Stevens segment that misinformed people about the dangers to the open internet with one that more clearly explained the issue.

I’ll also give a big shout to Prometheus Radio Project for their “Series of Fallopian Tubes” t-shirts because they (a) put “Senator Stevens: Don’t Tie Our Tubes!” on the back so it wasn’t just an inside joke, (b) debuted them at the male-dominated HOPE conference where feminism is more radical than net neutrality, and (c) are using the shirts as a fundraiser for digital expansion.

But to the people who scoff at the stupidity of their enemies and chuckle at their own brilliance while doing nothing to actually shift the balance of power, I say bah. Pooh on you. (Maybe I should have labeled my enemy the smugfest rather than the snarkfest.)

While we’re on the subject of net neutrality, can someone tell me when we start pushing for the regulatory scheme we really want for this series of tubes?

Net neutrality is actually a retreat from “open access,” which is what we had before the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision. Open access applied to the Internet when we were using dial-up over and it was classified as a “telecommunications service” like the telephone. With the telephone, that means owners of the lines can’t prioritize their customers’ calls over those of their competitors’ (net neutrality or, as it’s known in the phone world, “common carrier”), but it also means they have to lease their lines to other phone service providers (open access). Open access is how you can have real competition without having a dozen different wires running under your street, through your backyard, and into your house.

As Internet users moved from dial-up to broadband, there was a period where this same sort of leased access seemed to apply. Brand X was an independent Internet Service Provider to whom the cable companies would not provide access to their lines, citing the FCC’s classification of their broadband Internet over cable lines as an “information service” and thus not subject to the regulations of phone lines. The Supreme Court upheld that classification.

Soon after, the phone companies petitioned the FCC to provide the same classification to their DSL broadband service, even though they were still using the same phone lines, and the FCC agreed.

As I understand it, the common carrier provisions were given a sunset of this September to allow for some period of transition before all of the independent ISPs get wiped out and all of our Internet traffic falls into the hands of the phone companies. So we are in the weird position of needing a new law to preserve the status quo.

In a Congressional climate like today’s, we’ll take net neutrality, but what we really want is open access. That would get us out from under the broadband duopoly and allow competition to address problems like bad customer service, high prices, or an internet taking five days to get to your inbox. (The other thing that could accomplish this is a community or municipal broadband infrastructure to rival the corporate infrastructure. More on this later in the week.)



  1. Far be it from me to discourage snarkiness as a general rule, but you are right on the money on all counts.

  2. “But to the people who scoff at the stupidity of their enemies and chuckle at their own brillance while doing nothing to actually shift the balance of power, I say bah. Pooh on you.”

    And this post, which scoffs at the apparent “stupidity” of those who continue to pound the humor home is doing what, exactly, to actually shift the balance of power? As a commenter pointed out on your earlier post, if it weren’t for the chuckles this issue wouldn’t have a fraction of the public awareness profile that it does. There: the door is open for you and me to educate people beyond the ha-ha. Will you walk through it, or kvetch about the technique used by those who opened the door for you?

    Kind of like, a few months ago, when there was bellyaching that “net neutrality” is a stupid name for this policy fight and that we need something better, even though the policy fight was already underway and it was a few months late to be focused on that notion.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m with you on the idea that we should be pushing for more and better (in both policy and framing), but I’ll take snark over whine any time.

    Also, while I wholeheartedly support community broadband projects, you need to keep in mind the entire internetwork. The public/non-profit last-mile alternative still has to connect to an ISP, which in turn hooks into the backbone routers. Who owns the backbones? AT&T is now the largest passer of peered traffic in the country. If we develop alternatives to the last-mile bottleneck we will still rely on our foes to provide the ultimate transport of our packets. Think even bigger, mang.

    (I’ve never been able to get the heralded free wireless in downtown Urbana, because the CUWiN cloud isn’t actually hooked into a cable/DSL/T1 line. D’oh!)

    Could write more about unbundled network elements, but am out of time. Note that there is no talk in the current legislative push about reinvigorating UNE-P

  3. Well, John, let’s see. I’m not saying community broadband is the silver bullet. But that is a section of the infrastructure that we can own and a set of users we can aggregate, which are the two things that would give us leverage when dealing with the backbone owners. If you think I don’t consider how our communities can control the big pipes, you don’t know me (which you do).

    As for the rest of your criticism, I am lamenting precisely how un-open the door is as a result of the way the public has been educated. Some of the “series of tubes” jokes are good, as I point out. But many imply that our enemy is stupid, which he is not. They imply that he is feeble, which he is not. It might wake people up to the problem, but it gives them a really skewed understanding of the problem. Would the problem be solved if the chair of the commerce committee was young and eloquent when speaking about technology? No, he (odds are a he) would still be shilling for telco lobbyists and angling for pork.

    As for whether I take the opportunities offered me to educate people on these issues, I think I do my share as a friend, activist, and writer. Thus the second half of the post, which gives some much needed context to the increasing awareness of net neutrality and points out that there might be other, better ways to skin this cat.

    If you want to dismiss my criticism as whining, go ahead. Maybe I wasn’t at the table when the cabal was first deciding how to frame the net neutrality debate, but I think it was still a fine time to critique the way people were explaining it and make a suggestion for a better way. I know it helped plenty of my friends to explain it to other people. (See also Preserve a free and open Internet and Think the Internet Will Always be Open?. These examples are probably not directly related to my suggestion, but demonstrate at least that it was more than bellyaching.)

    These types of opportunities – slips of a Senator’s tongue, the naming of an issue – will arise again and again. We have to constantly improve our handling of them and we can only do that by airing criticism and making adjustments.

    So whenever I sniff this common tendency on the left – to think we will win simply because we are smarter, because we are right – I’m gonna stomp my feet because it’s proven disastrous and it pisses me off. (Maybe I was a little extra ticked off a couple of weeks ago because it felt like the two things in the news were “series of tubes” jokes and dead Lebanese children, so the jokes seemed even more flat.) Similarly, I think I’m right and smart, but I know that’s not going to keep people from making stupid, counterproductive jokes, t-shirts, and remixes.

    And maybe I wasn’t clear about this, but my real problem with the jokes isn’t that they were jokes, but that they were cheap. If you want to turn a meme into a song, make it count. If you don’t know what I mean, compare the worthless techno remix of “series of tubes” to the The Legendary K.O.’s masterful reworking of Kanye’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

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