If the FCC Had Regulated the Internet
A counterfactual history of cyberspace.
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."
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.
"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.
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 email@example.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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