Government and the grid

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.”

5 thoughts on “Government and the grid

  1. Nathan

    “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.”

    Well, gee, I guess that means we just better depersonalize everyone a bit more! You know, making sure that we can get whatever useful information they can give us while a) protecting their privacy, and b) not having to really acknowledge their personal existence.

    In other words, we are the sum of our qualities – what we have that others want – and nothing more…

    …and nothing less of course (whatever that means)

  2. Mike Leach

    Regulation of the Internet backbone and carriers? Yes… there probably should be some oversight by an agency like the FCC.

    Regulation of SaaS and content providers on the Internet? No. Not unless the government is contracting with the host directly or outsourcing services, such as email or document management.

    A free market must always prevail and government hosting contracts must be awarded to those entrepreneurs who continue to keep pace with advances in Internet technology, otherwise our culture would cease to innovate.

  3. Arvino

    I think the era has changed. Government has always been regulating “traditional limited space” that is within their jurisdiction to authorize, serve, protect and manage. But the web is a “totally new global space concept” that know no boundary of space nor time.

    In that sense, the “internet” is a universal medium that has no definition of “country of ownership”, “origination”, “governmentship”, “color”, “time” nor “space”. It is simply a global worldwide universal space where people, business, information, work and processes connect (and get connected).

    Unlike any bordered-space definition that government team accustomed to in the past, the internet is naturally global, universal and “borderless” since day 1 it was born.

    Just like the Newtonian mechanics need to be adapted and understoon in the context of the “more complete” Modern Physics, I think in this new “borderless” internet world, the role of government would be more powerful, effective and attune to the need of the people it serve and care about, if it position itself to “embrace” and “adapt” to the new rule, symptomps and structure of the new “borderless internet world”. In other word: to get itself sync to the new “no rule” rule of the “internet space”, rather than trying to apply the more traditional “Newtonian mechanics” view and “physics” to the world that we have known to be “bigger” and “more modern” than what “government’s newtonian mechanics” could perceive, regulate, rule and understand.

    In that retrospect, “no rule” is perhaps the “best rule” that can be applied for the “new emerging globally interconnected space” that we known today to be called the internet.

    One day the “internet” (as we know it today) might become our “second living space”, our “2nd earth”. One day it might become our virtual globally connected borderless world whereby once we “enter” “space” — just like the modern physics — the symptomps and assumption and “regulation” of the older “world” no longer apply.

    That’s my feel, overall view and draft opinion.

  4. ericlussier

    I agree with Mike that the pipes should be controlled by government but not how we use the water. The threat of the Internet being used in some sort of 1984 telescreen is reason enough to worry about allowing too much government control over peoples data.

    Arvino paints quite a utopian picture of the future Internet, but in countries such as China we already see the start of a policed virtual-state. There is an equally plausible distopian view that the Western world could be one or two catastrophic incidents away from such a fate.

    I also hope that as the younger generations start running for office, some of them will have better awareness on how to handle the issues of the day.

    I really hope they start running soon…

  5. Ade McCormack

    The message coming across is that the web and new technologies in general will be so pervasive in the future that they will have a distorting effect on society and thus need the intervention of politicians and ultimate regulation of IT.

    The natural extension of this is that like the evolution of the electricity industry, the IT industry as its morphs into a utility industry, will become increasingly regulated and in some cases nationalised. Whether it be to protect those on the wrong side of the digital divide, keep a lid on terrorism or simply control the people, it is only a matter of time before governments realise that they must tame IT and the IT industry.

    Your book raises serious social issues. Imagine a future where the memory card in your camera is backed up to a storage service provider. Such a service will be very useful to ensure those Kodak moments are preserved. But how would you feel if your government was able to enjoy your photos because they own, or at least control, this storage service.

    Those of us who are trying to steer IT towards delivering better business value and improving the lives of consumers need to have one eye on where this journey might end.

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