Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Wild West Web needs a sheriff

By Douglas Rushkoff
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1931 GMT (0331 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Court strikes down rule that ISPs can't favor some websites over others
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Corporations may have to pay for more bandwidth to stream videos
  • He says FCC should be empowered to make rules to favor real people, nonprofits
  • Rushkoff: The idea of letting Web be a lawless Wild West doesn't work

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) -- This week, champions of the "open net" are decrying a U.S. Court of Appeals decision striking down an FCC ruling that required Internet service providers to be neutral in their restrictions on bandwidth.

The idea here is that giant bandwidth users, like Netflix or YouTube, will be required to pay access providers, like Verizon or Time Warner Cable, for all that video they're streaming to the likes of us. Maybe they'd even be able to buy themselves a special faster lane on the Internet for their traffic.

Of course, "open Web" advocates see in the court decision the beginning of the end of a free and egalitarian Internet. By striking down the provisions of what the industry calls "net neutrality," the court has also struck down an Internet provider's obligation to let all content through its servers. In theory, they can now legally pick and choose whose media makes it to its subscribers. Which would stink.

But this whole issue, and the instantaneous outcry associated with every move by a court or agency, is more complex than it looks on the surface. By casting this issue in such stark terms, those who would defend Internet freedom from the evil corporations may just be playing into the hands of other corporations whose designs on the Internet are no better.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

In fact it seems like just yesterday when nearly all the Internet's champions were telling government to stay away from the net. The Web was home to the revival of Ayn Rand and a new spirit of techno-utopian libertarianism. The idea was: The free market will cure any glitches along the way, as technology firms simply compete to bring us the best.

The 1997 Wired cover story, "The Long Boom," argued that the only impediment to technology-fueled economic growth would be the regulation of the marketplace. "Open good, closed bad. Tattoo it on your forehead." This became a credo of Silicon Valley and the net in general.

People acted as if the Internet just emerged out of culture, like a technological extension of the collective human nervous system, rather than a network that was meticulously planned and built by government and, yes, Al Gore.

Instead the main metaphor for the net would be the Wild West, out of the reach of government meddling.

But as anyone who has studied the Wild West (or even watched "Deadwood") has learned, gold rushes get messy at the end. Eventually a big, corrupt gold mining company starts exploiting all that lawlessness, and all of a sudden it's the formerly independent law-haters turning to the sheriff for help.

And so the defenders of the net now go running for assistance to an FCC that has been systematically excluded at every turn and diminished in its power by some of these very same parties. Slammed down as if it were burning books whenever it considers protecting kids from pornography or interfering in some affair that is being fought out in the marketplace, the FCC has become a derided and timid agency.

That's why the FCC was destined to lose this case. It never even defined the Internet as a "common carrier" -- like a road or telegraph wire -- which would necessarily be regulated in a neutral fashion, permitting passage by all. Yet in its ruling this week, the court even made it clear that the FCC has the ability to define the net as it chooses -- opening the door for the agency to claim the Internet as its domain and enforce net neutrality.

No doubt, Google (which owns YouTube), and Netflix will be encouraging all free citizens of the Internet to push the FCC in this direction. After all, they're the ones whose videos make up a majority of Internet traffic, and who would be forced to pay the tolls -- that is, until they passed them down to us, which would likely lose them some business.

In such an environment, an "open" Web really just means open to corporations, who maintain their monopoly on bandwidth by technological superiority. None of us will have the streaming capability of a Google or Netflix off our home servers -- unless, of course, the FCC regulates things that way. I, for one, would less like to see net neutrality than net favoritism: It's the transmissions between real people, schools, artists and nonprofit organizations that need a special lane on the net if anyone's going to get such a provision.

So before we start shouting about what government and corporations should do to make the Web "open," we'd better remember that one person's "open" may as well be another person's "closed."

If we want a better, freer net, we have to stop responding so impulsively to every action taken in one direction or another -- particularly when there are multibillion-dollar corporations paying handsomely to make us think they're on our side. We have to remember instead who we did hire to protect our interests.

Yes, it's time to go get the sheriff (in this case the FCC), apologize for having stamped on his badge, and tell him he has the authority to regulate this space.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT