If the FCC had regulated the Internet: A counterfactual history of cyberspace.

Media criticism.
Dec. 23 2010 3:07 PM

If the FCC Had Regulated the Internet

A counterfactual history of cyberspace.

(Continued from Page 1)

"The [linking] icon itself would not require anyone to read anything," Sunstein writes. "It would merely provide a signal, to the viewer, where a different point of view might be consulted." The FCC approves Sunstein's plan for a "Fairness Doctrine" for the online world, and the FCC sets up a new Bureau of Links to enforce the practice.

In the name of beating back the "tyranny of the status quo," Sunstein also persuades the FCC to require online users to take occasional strolls on the virtual "sidewalk," where they will encounter unexpected ideas and material, an idea first proposed by Noah Zatz. Although Sunstein concedes that such mandates are intrusive, he argues, "But is it much different from daily life on a street or in a park? Is it much different from reading the newspaper or a general interest magazine?" The good derived from the intrusion outweighs the bad, Sunstein concludes.

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The FCC gives CompuServe, AOL, MCI Mail, and Prodigy until July 1997 to make their transition to Microsoft Bob. (Prodigy's owners, IBM and Sears, have folded their service because the delays have depressed subscriptions. GEnie and Delphi have have gone out of business, too. AOL and MCI announce their merger into AOL Mail, but the FCC prevents the union, saying that it would concentrate too much power in one online company's hands.)

In late 1997, Raman Desai debuts his knock-off of the Andreessen browser, which he calls Banyan. It's an international sensation, surging through the British Commonwealth nations like quicksilver. After those countries embrace the open Internet as their online standard, the FCC commissioner tells the New York Times, "It figures that the British socialists would adopt the Internet. There's no way to make money on a mostly e-mail network like that."

Computing centers in Wellington, Melbourne, London, Bangalore, and Vancouver boom as companies race to commercialize the Internet. Venture capitalists pour money into commonwealth startups. Desai becomes the first Internet billionaire from sales of his browser and server software, his shopping portal "Danube," and his international money clearinghouse, "Mr. PayPal." Other commonwealth Web entrepreneurs start successful Internet telephony firms, virtual universities, streaming-video sites, social networking operations, stock-trading sites, and online software services, resulting in a computer science brain-drain from the United States. Kinsley starts Slate as an offshoot ofthe Economist magazine.

In 1998, the Bob online service makes its debut—late, of course. The FCC regulates subscription prices for all of the online companies. Nobody likes Bob. It's slow and has a tendency to crash, resolving to a blank blue screen. Microsoft and the FCC promise fixes. The fixes are late, and the online services continue to bleed subscribers and losses.

Back in the Commonwealth, the Internet is going great guns. It spreads to Europe where, in 1999, it crushes the French government subsidized Minitel. Asia, South America, and Central America fall in love with the Internet, too. U.S. computer owners, envious of the online riches offered by the Internet, find ways to jury-rig clandestine connections to the commercial Net, where such exciting sites at Wikipedia, the Toronto Globe and Mail, eBay, and Danube can be "surfed" with Banyan. The FCC bans Banyan software and requires all online customers to be licensed through their local DMV for access to Bob. Anybody caught connecting to the commercial Internet risks losing their Bob license. The academic Internet in the United States is ordered closed.

In late 1999, Sergey Brin and Larry Page get their Ph.D.s in computer science from Stanford University and flee to Vancouver, B.C., where they found Yukon, a Web search company, with Silicon Valley venture capital. Andreessen reads about Yukon in Time magazine's cover story about "Raman Desai, Man of the Year," and sends his resume to Brin and Page. He never hears back.

In 2000, chronic problems with Bob cause the FCC to abruptly junk it completely. The FCC decides to subsidize the deployment of surplus Minitel terminals acquired from the French in a trade for one mothballed WWII aircraft carrier. The U.S. tech community recoils at the embrace of the Minitel, complaining that it's worse than a toy. The Minitel is a slow "dumb terminal," less upgradable than even the despised Bob system, they squeal. But the commission, vowing a new localism theme, also proposes a future regulatory regime in which municipalities will build, manage, and own Minitel systems. The only stumbling block for the FCC is that the Minitel systems are too backward to be retrofitted with a virtual V-chip.

"The online world really needs to be a public utility," says the FCC chairman. "It is as essential to the nation's well-being as the police, national defense, the roads, and garbage collection."

Citing the same logic, the chairman also calls for the nationalization of cable TV at the local government level. "The tyranny of choice offered by cable television has left consumers confused, frustrated, and misinformed," he says. The "misinformed" jibe is widely interpreted as an attack on Fox News Channel programs. 

In mid-2000, Andreessen has his first stroke of luck in almost a decade when Apple Computer hires him to join the team designing the original iPod. Andreessen's first idea is to scale the iPod up. Instead of being just another MP3 player, the iPod should become a multipurpose computer that can accept text input, take photos, record video, make phone calls, and, yes, yes, yes, connect to his beloved Internet through its telephone connection.

Steve Jobs meets with Andreessen in an Apple cafeteria over coffee.

"You're brilliant, kid," says Jobs. "But the FCC would never allow us to enter the mobile-phone racket. Besides, their plan is for all existing mobile phones to become Minitel compliant and Internet ignorant."

******

Later, the FCC approves the Zune phone, which is even dumber than a Minitel box. Send your futuristic regulatory fantasies to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Come hear the uncensored braying of my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.