Information in the Pipes: Controlling the Internet and the Power Within

Tim Wu’s The Master Switch recounts the historical context of what he refers to as “The Cycle”, the ever flowing cycle of invention and innovation in the land of information empires, wherein the natural state becomes monopoly. Wu gives overviews of this historical pattern throughout radio, telephone, television, and film, noting the striking similarities between the four mediums over the course of what amounts to nearly a century. Where Wu’s book breaks from the mold a little bit is with the last medium: the Internet. Wu ran into a bit of a problem (or an opportunity) 516E5Ssf5VL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_ when he got to the Internet: It is, if the Cycle applies to it, in the earliest stages. Indeed, the Internet is with even the most liberal estimate only 30 years old, meaning it was much closer to 20 when Wu was writing (the book was originally published in 2010). Compared to the rest of his mediums, 20 years is infancy. The next youngest for Wu was television, which was somewhere around 60 years old when he published The Master Switch. In fact, the Internet is almost universally accepted as in its infancy. Wu does a lot of postulating on the future of the Internet and its place in (or out of) the Cycle. What does the nature of the Internet, both its source of content and source of delivery, mean for its future? Will the Internet break the Cycle?


Often overlooked in the nature of the Internet is the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is only a portion of the Internet, just the tip of what the Internet can bring. The Web is a great source of information, but the Internet predates the Web as a carrier of Information by two decades. ARPANET, one of the first interconnected networks, was created at UCLA to share research and other academic and scientific knowledge over a network. The Internet is the inevitable growth of the interconnected information networks growing to be a worldwide network that shares information across all borders. The birth of the Internet was step one in insulating it from the Cycle. The academic birthplace that was UCLA and the other universities and research institutions that partnered to form the proto-internet that was ARPANET were insulated from the market that took hold of the other information networks Wu chronicled. The expansion of the Internet over the first 20 years occurred in so many ways with minimal to no touch from a corporate entity’s touch. That allowed the public, just regular people, to grow and shape the Internet to a point where it may seem like it is out of reach of the Cycle. That isn’t as safe a bet as it once was, however.

The Internet is, unfortunately for many, very much within the grasp of the Cycle. As with nearly every information system, there needs to be a system of delivery. The internet’s delivery system is what many refer to “the pipes.” Broadband Internet access comes over physical wires in the ground, be they coaxial cables, fiber optic lines, or something similar. When a system is delivered over physical means, the opportunity to control the system always exists for whoever controls the physical system.


Credit: John Cole, Scranton Times-Tribune Cartoonist

Just because the Internet hasn’t experienced this yet does not mean that it can’t happen. In fact, it is almost safe to assume that it will at the very least be attempted. Just this past year, the freedom of the Internet was compromised when Net Neutrality was repealed in the United States. This rollback of Internet safeguards means that access to the Internet can be compromised for so many people. Internet service providers can now throttle speeds based on subscription tiers (among other things) as well as prioritize specific traffic to specific places on the Web. This not only can price people out of effective Internet access, but it can lead to centralized information sources. One of the greatest parts of the Internet, and of the Web, is people’s abilities to consume and share information at equal opportunity. Indeed, there is nothing that makes a news blog less accessible than places such as CNN or Vox. With Net Neutrality repealed, there’s nothing stopping ISPs from making one of those easier to access than the others, and it is almost a certainty that they won’t choose the blog.


The nature of the Internet begs one final question: If the traditional Cycle hasn’t taken hold of the Internet, is there a different face to the same Cycle that has, or will, take the Internet? In the examples of Wu’s book, the entirety of the systems became monopolies. But with the Internet, would a more subtle monopoly, one that became a closed system of information without being, at least on the surface, a fully closed system? The Master Switch didn’t necessarily make a distinction between monopolies of systems and monopolies of information, simply because in Wu’s areas, they were always the same thing. With the Internet, a system so revolutionary it has redefined the way people think about the flow of information, the distinction might be necessary. The Internet has created an entirely new flow of information, so why then can’t we assume it has created an entirely new flow of monopoly? The Internet might not be there yet, but without an ever watchful eye, it very well could be on the way.


If you’re interested in learning more about Net Neutrality, go here:

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