Last April, the President of the Ford Foundation wrote an article Why Foundations of All Kinds Should Promote Internet Access. It described Ford’s plans to commit $50 million over the next five years “to support efforts that ensure both that broadband access to the Internet becomes a reality for all citizens and that public-interest values in the online space itself are protected.” In particular, he thinks:
- Every person should have the opportunity to access high-speed Internet connections.
- Everyone should have a choice of providers to drive competition and innovation.
- Everyone should have the same legal rights and protections online as off¬line.
- We collaborate with citizens, companies, and government to build common-sense rules to prevent censorship and anticompetitive behavior that can stifle innovation. [sic – a bit of grammatical slippage in this one]
The article adds: “There is a real debate to be had: How can government, business, and nonprofit organizations lead innovation? How can citizens enjoy the access they need on the Web? How can government craft workable, smart rules of the road for all? The debate needs many voices.”
Maybe Digital Society should apply for a grant, since we certainly subscribe to these values (except maybe the third, where I don’t understand what the article is driving at). We also have strong views on how best to approach achieving these worthy goals, which is to focus on property rights and markets, and to avoid fine-tuned government regulation that will, by the iron laws of policitics, wind up supporting incumbents and stale business models at the expense of the future and innovation.
It is a truism that the future does not give campaign contributions in the present, which is why innovation must fly under the radar of the political system and the special interest state. For some specifics, review Tom Hazlett’s recounting of the dreary history of the FCC’s suppression of innovation (starting at p. 41 of the PDF).
I can guarantee you, though, that ours is not one of the “many voices” that Ford thinks should be heard. One of the fascinating dimensions of the telecom sector of the “public interest” movement of the past few years is the degree to which it is dominated by the academic left and the free culturists, whose main reason for opposing market solutions is that they disintermediate a class of academics, government mandarins, and lawyers.
Besides, market solutions would upset a few influential corporations which have developed business models that allow them to free ride on the sunk capital of the Internet. So the incumbents to be protected here are not the telecom providers, which are regarded as cash cows to be milked (or perhaps visualize the denouement of The Matrix) but a number of other interests that would be upset by a genuine ruthless dedication to innovation and invention. A major reason for supporting the Verizon-Google draft framework on net neutrality is that it recognizes and confronts the legitimate concerns about possible market power in the telecom sector while providing for minimal and focused government action in the future, thus reducing opportunities for blackmail and rent-seeking.
So do you think we have a shot at a chunk of Ford’s $50 million to make our voice heard on these points? As they say, don’t hold your breath.
Image from RoryRory’s Photostream.