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Note to Self: Get Real


Regular readers here at know that I think wireless Internet access may well prove to be a touchstone for the pending rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Think about it. Universal access is so neat that cities and towns think providing free wireless Internet access is a great idea. Why? It makes them look cool. Looking cool gets them re-elected.
As this issue moves forward it is not going to be a slam-dunk . The tech community’s approach to legislative initiatives is – to be polite – inconsistent. So far, most of the talk has been a bitter, faux-knowing resignation that of course the big corporations will triumph and the poor, farsighted Geeks of the tech world will – sigh – once again be seen as kooks who are trampled by greedy corporations. And as necessary and timely as Doc Searls’ call to action on this issue is right now, his attitude toward what will happen and how is based, I am sorry to say, in unrealistic thinking about how Washington operates. It is a reflection of how tech has historically fared, not a contemplation of how things have changed since 1996.
Searls calls on EFF and Larry Lessig, not on TechNet or John Doerr. He ignores the role that campaign contributions (Shedding their civics book aversion to political reality, Doerr and TechNet have given often in recent years) and cites, as a legislative initiative, a draft of a bill that has – as far as I can tell, searching today – not been actually introduced into the public debate. It has no sponsors – no names attached – it’s just a piece of paper with some bad ideas written on it.

Why the scare tactics? Well, I suspect it’s unintentional. Doc, like a lot of other folks in tech sees a piece of draft legislation as a statement of purpose. Often it’s just a fancy wish list cooked up to test the waters.
But legislation like the draft Searls points to has triggered the expected reaction. Many Geeks, living and working solo on the web prefer to think of the Internet as an individual medium. It is. But it is not likely to remain so. More people are on the Internet now. And those folks want – and will get – protections. Protections from what? Well, that’s really the question. And it’s one that all the Chicken Littles of Tech – too busy watching the sky fall – had better start answering. It is not realistic for folks like Doc – in the face of the enormous fortunes made on the web in the past decade – to try and argue that tech is an underdog. It’s a political argument that can’t be sustained with lawmakers or with the general public.
That’s not to say there aren’t good strategies available. That’s why I’m so optimistic about wifi and the role it can play recruiting people to tech’s side of the argument. Most of these new Internet devotees like wireless Internet access as much as Geeks do. Many of them are just beginning, particularly as they watch their children master technology, to realize the power of the network.
But these new users may not see the Internet in the same way that Geeks like Searls do. For them, it is not the safe home where the individual can roam free. It’s an invisible threat that steals their childrens’ time, offers all sorts of salacious temptation and opens them up to all sorts of potential harm from stangers they can’t see or ever know. These people use the ‘net differently – that’s why MSN, AOL and Yahoo are in business and doing well. Lecturing them about how Big Corporations – which many of them rely on, trust and see as neutral, if not friendly – is not a good tactic. If you don’t think the phone and cable companies are going to mobilize them against a mythical -loving communist who’s so socially inept he can’t hold down a job and who wants nothing more than to reach out and electronically stalk their teenager daughters, you better wake up. Fast.
Those are strong words. I know. But the back-and-forth here is likely to get even harsher if tech’s most articulate on-line spokesmen and women want to insist on wrapping themselves in high-minded rhetoric and ignoring practical – if not necessarily high-minded – means of achieving their aims.
That’s why it’s important to take a look at what Josh Trevino has up on his pages condemning San Francisco’s plans for free municipal wireless access. You can also have a gander at this eWeek column which I wrote – with a lot of help from Josh – as a way to frame the argument to consider not-so-tech friendly approaches to this issue.
Searls is right about one thing: The time to start working on this issue to keep the Internet out of strict corporate control is now. How tech gets at this problem and manages to secure the world that Searls and others believe is possible – at the same time making normal users feel secure – needs more thought and, then, some well-timed action.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 12:06 PM | Permalink

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