In the new issue of the journal Democracy, Clinton-era FCC chief Reed Hundt offers a thoughtful review of my book The Big Switch. As you’d expect, Hundt concentrates on the political and regulatory implications of the growth of computing utilities, an important subject that I address only glancingly in the book, and he lays out the case that government should play an aggressive role in shaping the structure of the utility computing industry as it grows in scope and power.
The big question for Hundt is whether the government will favor the large central providers, as, he argues, is the current administration’s bias, or whether it will favor the little guys – the private citizens and the small entrepreneurial firms that, he implies, were championed by Clintonians like himself. Reflecting on the analogy I draw between the development of the electric grid a hundred years ago and the development of today’s computing grid, he asks:
As history repeats itself, doesn’t it follow that government will either own or tightly regulate the data centers? That is what happened with electric utilities … Most assuredly, China will either own or regulate, or both, all its control points; so too, Russia; probably, India; very likely, Europe; and eventually even libertarian America will place some checks on the power of data center owners, just as it did to electricity a hundred years ago. Indeed, as those owners increasingly ask the government for favors, which they cannot resist doing, they are wrapping themselves in the elastic and unbreakable spider’s web of government. The real question is not whether regulation will occur – it will–but whether the American people, as citizens or consumers, will have something to say about these congeries of information.
Hundt suggests that many of my forecasts about the possible social costs of the centralization of control over computing are overly “gloomy,” not so much because he believes that the technology will progress differently than I describe but because he foresees the government stepping in to counter the ill effects of the technological changes. The government will have little choice but to act, he argues, should the computing grid push more wealth into the hands of the few or polarize the electorate or expand the theater of terrorism or infringe further on personal privacy or begin to blur the line between machine intelligence and human intelligence.
I don’t disagree that government policymakers will be forced to throw off their laissez-faire attitude toward the Internet as it turns into our universal medium and universal computer. Indeed, toward the end of the book I make this same point:
As the importance of the Internet as a shared global infrastructure grows, decisions about its governance as well as its structure and protocols will take on greater weight. The new computing grid may span the world, but as the dominant medium for commerce, communication, and even culture it has profound national and regional implications. Very different conceptions of how the grid should operate are emerging, reflecting the economic, political, and social interests of different countries and regions. Soon, governments will be forced to start picking sides.
I find less comfort in that fact, though, than Hundt seems to. Politicians and bureaucrats tend to be slow and clumsy in dealing with technological revolutions, and at least in the short to medium term they can make decisions that amplify rather than counter the ill effects. And, even in the long run, I don’t believe that governments have as much power to control the flow of technological and economic change, and the resulting social consequences, as Hundt does.
But whatever our disagreements, Hundt ends up in pretty much the same place I do when he closes his review by emphasizing the great challenges that lie ahead:
Carr has indirectly and perhaps unintentionally written a list of reasons why the Internet’s next phase of evolution will call for much more public debate than occurred in the salad days of dial-up access, with that era’s insouciant exploration of whatever might happen. That public debate is long overdue … If Carr is even half-right about the twists and turns of the Internet’s odyssey, the next president has – in addition to Iraq, Pakistan, immigration, and most importantly climate change – a roster of very tough and important technology questions to ask and answer.
We’re in the early stages of a grand battle for control of the computing grid. Politicians will not be able to remain on the sidelines for much longer.
UPDATE: If you’re looking for an indicator of the debates that lie ahead, check out Louise Story’s article, in today’s New York Times, about an effort in the New York legislature to “make it a crime – punishable by a fine to be determined – for certain Web companies to use personal information about consumers for advertising without their consent.”