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TinotopiaLog → Just Say No To Government Networks ( 1 Dec 2004)
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Wednesday 01 December 2004

Just Say No To Government Networks

Today’s Washington Post ‘Filter’ column is headlined ‘Telecoms Winning the WiFi War’. It’s about the whole conflict between the city of Philadelphia and — the media would have you believe — Verizon.

Philadelphia wants to deploy a wireless network that would make free or low-cost high-speed Internet access available to everyone in the city. In principle, I applaud Philadelphia. The phone companies have been dragging their feet for years now on providing high-speed Internet access, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s any real hope that, say, Verizon will deploy a low-cost wireless network in Philadelphia (or anywhere else) any time soon.

In practice, though, I am horrified at the idea of the city owning the network, and I cannot believe that nobody but Tino seems to be rooting for Verizon — though I’m holding my nose — in this one. I’ve written before about the hazards of ‘free’ networks. Does anyone really think that a ‘free’ network run by the government would be very useful at all?

Leaving aside the fact that the government operating a communications network would raise all sorts of sticky free-speech issues, consider for a moment this phrase:

“We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can —-”

This phrase comes up a lot when people debate what should and shouldn’t be available on networks in public libraries:

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can jerk off — so porn would be filtered.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can steal copyrighted works — so file-sharing systems would be blocked.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that a few people can hog more than their ‘fair share’ of bandwidth by downloading legitimate content — so even legal downloads of large files would likely be blocked.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that other people can make money — so you’d find lots of online shopping blocked.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can advocate violence — so Indymedia would be blocked.

Et cetera et cetera et cetera. And remember, the software that attempts to block all this stuff is incredibly crude, so a lot of even those few categories of content that everyone agrees are okay would be blocked. Never mind what it would cost to build this network (a lot): the technology costs would be dwarfed by the costs of defending the city against all the first-amendment and restraint-of-trade suits that would result. And as a user, you’d likely not have a choice, because as reluctant as private enterprise is to invest in large-area wireless networks now, I don’t think that their deployment would be speeded if they had to compete against free.

Furthermore, I’m not entirely certain that I would want to use a network whose operator has the power to put you in jail for terms-of-service violations.

So tell me, once again, what the people of Philadelphia would gain from this kind of service? The people in poor neighborhoods, the ones that private operators are likely to never offer service in, would have wireless network access. I think that universal service is important — hey, it’s a network, of course it benefits from the network effect — but I don’t think that the government can possibly operate it. Because blowhards and pressure groups — not the network’s users — would almost certainly dictate network policies, it’s not likely to be as useful as everyone assumes it would be.

You will notice that I assume here that the government is competent and that it means well, two things that are not always the case. The challenges of having a democratic government in today’s social climate attempting to operate something like this would be so great, and the problems from it so paralyzing, that actual technical problems wouldn’t even be noticed.

Posted by tino at 21:19 1.12.04
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