Who Has a License to Drive the Information Superhighways?

Update – 2 March 2015: The promised part 2 of this post is now published!

The former U.S. Vice President Al Gore coined the term, “information superhighways” to describe the Internet. It was a great political slogan, and Gore was certainly one of the most internet-friendly U.S. political figures (and one of the first). But that doesn’t mean the term has legs.

A superhighway, for example, has a speed limit – well, just about everywhere except Germany, that is. Does Internet have one? I suppose it might, purely in terms of capacity – but not for the kinds of reasons that motivate automobile speed limits. In fact, we limit driving speed for safety – but on the Internet, the faster the better, and speed limits are seen as an impediment to efficient operation, not a safety regulation.

To drive on a superhighway, you need a driver’s license. Are we willing to pass an examination to drive on the Internet superhighway? Should we be? Personally, I think not.

In many countries, superhighways have tolls that pay for their maintenance and provide a profit to a concessionaire. We do pay our ISP’s, but in general, we don’t seem to think they provide good maintenance of our routes. And now, they are wanting to control what makes, models, and colors of car can drive on their highways.

In short, the traditional model of superhighways includes some sort of pay-per-distance, the need to be licensed to use it, and other forms of legal and social controls, that in general, Internet users have been reluctant to accept.

Why is it that we think it’s OK to have our cars registered with the government, our drivers’ licenses issued by the government (which can then track us thanks to both), and to have a whole raft of laws affecting how we drive and how fast, that restrict our “freedom” of movement – yet we are not willing to have analogous controls for navigating the world’s info-paths?

My best guess has two components:

  • The Internet is NOT a system of superhighways – it has a meta-existence that only a few roads have ever known (The Silk Road, Route 66…)
  • The Internet functions in the realm of ideas – and we do not take well to “thought control.”

In this post, I’ll deal with the first component.

Continue reading “Who Has a License to Drive the Information Superhighways?”