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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Federal Communications Commission recently issued new rules regulating the Internet—even though it doesn't appear to have such powers. A federal court gangster-slapped the commission last year, accusing it of regulatory overreach for attempting to dictate Internet policy to service providers. These new regulations got me to thinking of where we would be today if the FCC had regulated the Internet from the get-go. …

In January 1993, idle regulators at the FCC belatedly discover the burgeoning world of online services. Led by CompuServe, MCI Mail, AOL, GEnie, Delphi, and Prodigy, these services have been embraced by the computer-owning public. Users "log on" to communicate via "e-mail" and "chat rooms," make online purchases and reservations, and tap information databases. Their services are "walled gardens" that don't allow the users of one service to visit or use another. The FCC declares that because these private networks use the publically regulated telephone system, they fall under the purview of the Communications Act of 1934. The commission announces forthcoming plans to regulate the services in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity."

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The FCC ignores the standalone Internet because nobody but academics, scientists, and some government bodies go there. So do the online services, which don't offer Internet access.

"Regulating the Internet would make as much sense as regulating inter-office mail at Michigan State University," says the FCC chairman. "The online services are the future of cyberspace."

The online companies protest and vow to sue the FCC, but the heavily Democratic Congress moots the suits by passing new legislation giving the commission oversight of the online world.

The FCC immediately determines that the lack of interoperability among the online systems harms consumers and orders that each company submit a technical framework by January 1994 under which all online companies will unify to one shared technology in the near future. The precedent for this are the technical standards that the FCC has been setting for decades for AM and FM, and for television. The online services threaten legal action again, and again Congress passes new legislation authorizing the FCC to do as it wishes. The online companies hustle to submit a technical framework. Microsoft wants in on the game, so it persuades the FCC to extend the framework deadline to July 1995.

Meanwhile in Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee has invented the first Internet browser—"WorldWideWeb," he calls it. The Internet continues to creep along on campuses as a marginalized academic/scientific network used mostly for e-mail. A college student at the University of Illinois named Marc Andreessen helps write a more sophisticated graphical browser, which is released to little fanfare in 1993. When Andreessen leaves his graduate school program, he can't get a job in his field of computer sciences and takes a position as a night manager at a Taco Bell. He spends his spare time repairing broken Macintoshes.

In late 1993, AOL and Delphi become the first online services to offer the Internet. The FCC orders both to drop the feature until the FCC's labs approve it.

"We can't have the online industry pushing out beta software on unsuspecting customers willy-nilly. Such software could compromise the users' computers, interfere with other users' computers, or crash the whole online world," the FCC chairman says.

AOL's popular chat rooms, where people flirt and trade smut, are also closed by FCC decree. The FCC claims that it is shutting the chat rooms, which it had never approved, until AOL devises software that can prove that no child pornography is being traded there. The only way to accomplish that is to exercise the right to open and inspect every file and text message, which the FCC OKs.

Citing software development problems, the online services ask that the deadline for framework specs get pushed back from July 1995 to July 1996. The FCC approves.

Because the Web has yet to catch on, eBay, Amazon, and ESPN.com do not launch in 1995. Michael Kinsley, who had been working with AOL on a proposed online magazine, returns to the New Republic as editor when AOL cancels the project.

Andreessen earns a promotion to Taco Bell day manager.

In Bangalore, India, a computer science student named Raman Desai stumbles upon Andreessen's browser while exploring the Internet. He decides to design his own Web browser.

In September 1996, Microsoft, whose biggest individual stockholders are Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Ballmer, who are raising millions for the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign, wins the FCC's online design shootout.

Microsoft calls its online-unifier "Bob."

"This award is made purely on the technical merits," the FCC chairman remarks.

The FCC is particularly enamored of the "back door" that Microsoft has built into Bob, making it easier for police to monitor communications in real time. The commission also applauds Microsoft's forward thinking because it has incorporated a virtual "V-chip" in Bob. The censoring software is analogous to the V-chip the FCC wants TV manufacturers to build into their sets to block violent and mature TV programming from being viewed by children.

The regulators also love Bob because it has created more "Channels" for police, fire, libraries, city councils, legislatures, courts, and public service messages than the other proposed systems. Bob testers complain that these channels leave little space for the data, information, and communications they expect to find on an online system. One compares Bob to a government designed version of the Yellow Pages, only duller. Another pines for the Wild West days of the unregulated online world when you didn't have to pay virtual "parking" to your local municipality before you went shopping inside the online mall.

Even so, the public access advocates are not satisfied. Cass R. Sunstein, the FCC's "fairness czar," says preferential placement of plentiful noncommercial sites isn't good enough. He convinces the FCC to require right-wing channels to link to left-wing channels, Christian channels to link to Muslim channels, vegetarian channels to link to meat-eating channels.

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