Newsbook: Should the Internet Be Regulated?

Newsbook: Should the Internet Be Regulated?

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The Federal Communications Commission’s plan to roll back net neutrality has sparked intense debate; those in favor worry that deregulation would limit access to information in a way that disproportionally affects vulnerable populations, while opponents argue that the market naturally regulates itself without government interference. Here are three books that examine both arguments and their historical precedents.

THE VICTORIAN INTERNET
The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s Online Pioneers
By Tom Standage
227 pp. Walker & Co. (1998)

In this history of the telegraph, which was developed in the United States and Britain during the 1840s, Standage demonstrates the parallels between the innovative technology of that era and today’s internet. The telegraph allowed people to communicate globally, changing the way business was conducted and even making transnational romance a possibility. Many hoped the accelerated communication would inspire greater international harmony. Standage cites a toast by the British ambassador in 1858 to “the telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.” The reality was less idyllic; people found ways to use the new form of communication to nefarious ends (like delaying messages or hacking private communication) and divisions were still perpetuated. But the telegraph’s cultural impact is undeniable, and Standage discusses its enduring influence in this book.

WHO CONTROLS THE INTERNET?
Illusions of a Borderless World
By Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu
238 pp. Oxford University Press. (2006)

For an overview of the fight to keep the internet open, turn to this book, written by Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term “network neutrality,” and Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith. As the subtitle suggests, Goldsmith and Wu reckon with the idea that the internet would transcend borders and territorial rule. They cite case studies like Google’s struggle to do business in France and Yahoo’s compliance with Chinese censorship to demonstrate how governments continue to exert their influence to control the web. In his second book, “The Master Switch,” Wu discusses how consolidation in the communications industry can lead to stringent control of information by corporations and threaten the internet’s democratic design.

THE FALLACY OF NET NEUTRALITY
By Thomas W. Hazlett
56 pp. Encounter Books. (2011)

This brief primer presents the opposing view; Hazlett argues that government regulation stalls and suppresses innovation and that competing networks should be allowed to hash out the rules of managing web traffic among themselves. As he writes in his book, “This bountiful marketplace has emerged unplanned, unregulated, from the visions of technologists, the risks of venture capitalists, and the innovations of entrepreneurs.” Hazlett believes that trend can and should continue on its own.

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