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The Internet Tycoon Instruction Manual

author198 Aug 20, 2010

Christian Sandvig is Associate Professor of Communication, Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a Faculty Associate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

I learned almost everything I need to know about the network neutrality debate by playing the old game “Railroad Tycoon.” Remember those games? Railroad Tycoon was a popular series by Sid Meier (master of the simulation genre and the creative force behind Civilization) first launched way back in 1990. Most important for understanding network neutrality, the Railroad Tycoon series – especially the third one – often baffled gamers who thought that the games would be more about… well… railroads.

You see, the games, just like the US railroads that they simulate, often emphasized the second word in their title (Tycoon). The GameSpot review of Railroad Tycoon III declared that it “has something for anyone with a fondness for trains or making loads of money.” An outraged gamer named BarryD told MetaCritic that “It is quite simple to gain a boatload of money by buying industries and not laying any tracks” [except the bare minimum]! In an arch warning to model railroad enthusiasts everywhere, BarryD wrote that in this railroad game “there is a lack of focus on railways.”

Well there we have it. BarryD unintentionally gives us a pithy summary of the Gilded Age in American history. This is the period when we built our first national transport and communication networks, and robber barons and railroad tycoons like Vanderbilt and Morgan became the richest men on earth thanks to building the only railroads and then exhibiting a profound “lack of focus on railways.”

Caption: Railroad Tycoon? Or a portrait of Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts? [The Box Art for the original Railroad Tycoon] Image source: Wikipedia

It may be hard to conjure this distant past, but Adelbert Hamilton, writing in 1884, tells it like it was. The “railroad managers,” he writes, see it as their “duty” to “adjust the rates of transportation as to regulate the prices” of the goods that they convey. That is, not content to be in the railroad business, the tycoons leveraged their control over railways into “oil, coal, meat, and many other staples,” including land development. Hamilton writes that deals between railroads and privileged shippers impose “200 or 300 per cent [sic]” surcharges on goods they don’t want delivered.

Cattlemen, as just one example, depended on the railways to bring their product to market, but railroads launched their own pricier stockyards and declined to stop at the yards they did not own, even when they sat adjacent to the track. When this practice was declared illegal, the tycoons launched a strategy of traffic discrimination where the railroad would “prefer itself” (that is, it would improve service for stock destined for the yards it owned) whenever it was transporting livestock.

David Weinberger’s Future Tense blog post last Friday made clear what was at stake in the network neutrality debate. Adding to that, we can see that network neutrality is a new gloss on this old Gilded Age story. When you talk to your friends on your cellular phone, a cellular carrier like AT&T would rather “prefer itself” than let you use Skype. Comcast would rather “prefer itself” and have you watch all of your movies using Comcast On Demand, not download your torrents. (Even legal ones.)

Back when railroads ran the economy, or much of it, they did so to further their own interests. In general terms, we got out of this mess by establishing novel new independent commissions to apply a set of legal rules called “common carriage.” (The “carriage” originally referred to a horse-drawn carriage.)

These commissions, like the Interstate Commerce Commission in the US, wrestled with problems of fairness in transport, energy, and (drum roll) communication. Indeed this very system evolved into the modern Federal Communications Commission that today sits thinking about the newfangled idea of “network neutrality.”

The common carriage idea, in a nutshell, is this: We have some networked infrastructures that are essential to all kinds of other activity. These common carriers are companies that carry something very important for us (like Hamilton’s livestock or your phone call). They could be taxis, railroads, airplanes, railroads, telephones, telegraphs, or something else.

We don’t want these infrastructures to take too much of an interest in what they are carrying. We want them in the carriage business, not in the business of examining my cattle (or my video) to see how it might make them more money. No one can be turned away from a common carrier (non-discrimination), and they have to work together even if they don’t really want to (interconnection). We also ask them to publish their conditions of service, schedules and fares (transparency).

Here’s the thing: We took a sharp turn away from common carriage, mostly as a result of Bush administration policy at the FCC. We’ve used some version of these rules since England in 1348. (Really!) But the Bush FCC decided the Internet doesn’t need common carriage. Thus the entire so-called “network neutrality” debate is a way of fighting our way back to normal. As I’ve hope I’ve convinced you with all of the cattle and railroading, network neutrality problems are common carriage problems (as I have also written elsewhere in this PDF).

David Weinberger’s post is nostalgic for a geekier, open, and more transformative Internet of days past. Me too, but the Internet’s destiny isn’t the issue. Larry Downes, posting here on Wednesday wants us to think about this as a technical issue related to specific characteristics of cell phone networks and Internet protocols. Yet a common carriage regime has served us well for all kinds of diverse technologies from telegraphs to taxicabs.

In April, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his intent to reclassify the Internet as a common carrier (in FCC-speak, a “telecommunications service”). But instead of simply returning to common carriage, he wants to take a tiny little step back in that direction.

It was absolving the Internet from common carriage in the first place that was a radical move (as legal scholar Barbara Cherry has written). Yet in the bizarre language of partisan politics today, the FCC’s passing glance at the common carriage rules caused a joint Republican statement proclaiming the idea radical.

Why would Google want to strike a deal with a carrier (Verizon) to see that its goods get preferential treatment? (Or in Wired’s extremely evocative phrasing, why did Google become “a Carrier-Humping, Net Neutrality Surrender Monkey?“). These are the enduring dynamics of networked infrastructure, not some new particular wrinkle of Internet technology that demands its own phrase.

As danah boyd playfully pointed out in May on her blog, we already hate most of these companies as though they were regulated monopolies and we often feel inextricably tied to them and unable to switch. Let’s adjust the regulations to match the user experience.

Let’s treat these problems as the enduring challenges that they are and return Internet infrastructure to the common carrier regime. Let the commission sort out the details, but please leave the railroads to be railroads and the Internet to be the Internet.

I never want to play a computer game called Internet Tycoon.

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