By Jim Cicconi, AT&T Senior Executive Vice President of External & Legislative Affairs
The New York Times recently published a series of articles under the title, “So the Internet Didn’t Turn Out as We Hoped. Where Do We Go from Here?” I read the series with interest, as the Times turned a critical eye toward the internet as it currently is and its likely future. The series covered a lot of ground – the need for additional investment to address broadband gaps in rural America; the rise of subscription services to help users curate and tame the internet; and the Chinese internet, exemplified by the “SuperApp” WeChat, which might provide insights into the internet’s future. Other topics explored included the growing influence and dominance of the large tech platforms and how state sponsored misinformation campaigns are challenging truth on the internet.
Notably, nowhere does the series discuss internet service provider (ISP)-based open internet misconduct or concerns, and for good reason. As intervening events in the last few years have dramatically exposed how the internet is being used, misused and manipulated by a variety of internet players, ISP-centric arguments have quickly become yesterday’s policy story.
The Times observed that perhaps the most profound force at work upon the internet right now is the simple passage of time. This same passage of time now raises important questions about the ongoing open internet debate and whether resources should continue to be dedicated to a framework of internet regulations that are applied only to a narrow set of internet players. Indeed, as we look back on the long arc of the debate, it is stark how dramatic the internet experience has changed since the debate first emerged in the early 2000s. As the Times observed, while those of us raised in a pre-internet era may be somewhat insulated, the new generations of “digital natives” can bear direct witness to both the best and the worst the internet has to offer:
“In the naïve dreams of earlier days, many people joined [Mark] Zuckerberg in imagining that connecting the world could bring about new social virtues at no social cost. But it’s now clear that interconnection by its very nature also brings about confounding new social situations, whether it’s the problem of disinformation seeded and spread by organized propagandists or the mind-bendingly obsessive culture of online fandom. For teenagers today, the internet is both a stage onto which to step boldly and a minefield through which to step gingerly — a double bind that has given rise to whole new habits of living online, in which self-expression and self-protection are inextricably linked.”
Yet for the past decade plus, the internet policy debate has been focused almost solely on ISPs, to the exclusion of other online actors. That regulatory myopia has in turn produced the internet we didn’t expect. The true costs and challenges of an interconnected world, which are now only starting to be more fully understood, are the issues that today demand our time, energy and best ideas. As we look back on the debate, I hope that the signs and signals we missed previously will illuminate our path forward. And perhaps give us all a bit more humility about the positions we take, and the predictions we make today. Perhaps this time the policies that emerge will be based not on outdated or inaccurate guesses we all found ourselves making too many years ago, but instead on a totally fresh look at the actual threats to the open internet of today.