Notes from the First Day of the Internet Commons Congress

March 24, 2004

Washington DC

The purpose of the Internet Commons Congress was to bring together people from diverse groups to share strategies and ideas for protecting the commons from constricting infringements and restricting enclosures. A wide variety of folks showed up from both coasts and in between. A lively exchange of ideas took place in the conducive setting at the University of Maryland Shady Grove Campus.

Daniel Berninger, the host and co-organizer of the conference, welcomed everyone. His low-key, even-keel demeanor was helpful in setting the right tone for the conference -- a tone of respectful, thoughtful inquiry into the truth.

John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), kicked off the conference describing how he came to co-found EFF in the early 1990’s. He described some of the battles EFF has won and some of the battles EFF is fighting. He explained about the origins of the Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace, which he wrote back in 1997 after attending the World Economic Summit. “The document admittedly sounds arrogant,” he explained. “although many of the ideas in it have validity.” The document was written in a moment of frustration after the World Economic Summit, where government entities were just not “getting it.” (i.e. understanding the nature of the Internet.)

Barlow talked a little about Microsoft’s “trusted computing” initiative, which he feels is something that will lead to “political rights management.” (Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, feels similarly uncomfortable with “trusted computing,” which he refers to as “treacherous computing.”) The negative implications of Microsoft’s “Palladium” initiative were also described. (The dangers of Palladium are described well on the New Yorkers for Fair Use web site. under the Actions Items at the top left side of the site.)

Some of the panelists who presented were simply stellar. Here is a summary of what some panelists had to say. In the first panel, on “The Rise of Unlicensed Spectrum,” Tim Pozar, co-founder of the Bay Area Wireless User Group, told about the wireless Internet he is helping to set up on mountain tops in the Bay Area. Several ISP’s have donated bandwidth for this project. The mountain top dishes cost about $1000 each and beam the Internet down to distribution points up to 8 miles away. The distribution point can be mounted on the roof of someone’s house and can distribute wireless Internet to the neighborhood. Noted Internet thinker Lawrence Lessig is installing one of these on the roof of his house.

Harold Feld, associate director of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm, had many interesting things to say about media ownership and advocacy efforts at the FCC. He pointed out in a friendly way that people who want to impact the FCC and Congress need to spend more time agreeing about their common viewpoints, rather than spending time looking for minor differences in their viewpoints. Effecting change is much more difficult when there is no unity of voice.

Stuart Gannes, director of the Standford Digital Vision Project discussed several uses of technology in developing nations, including Grameen Phones, which are standard cell phones that reach remote villages using a microenterprise model. He explained that there are more people who live in cities in India (350 million) than all the people who live in the United States. He also explained that 700 million people in India live outside of cities. This translates to roughly one in ten persons on planet Earth is a person in India living outside of a city. All of these people want to communicate -- and are just getting access to communications tools that meet their needs.

In the second session, “Broadband and Bridging First Mile Disconnects,” Terry McGary, from the Merton Group, explained various projects around the country he is involved with that have private/public partnerships to bring broadband (including fiber) to the home. He described projects in southern New Hampshire and in Utah (the Utopia project.) Fiber costs $25,000 per mile to string, so it can only be economically feasible in certain communities. Wireless Internet can extend fiber’s reach.

Throughout the day various fascinating info-nuggets that were shared, including the fact that it costs telephone companies less than a penny per month to offer call-waiting -- yet they charge several dollars for the service. Many telecom services costs are hard to quantify and so the price of the service ends up being “whatever the market will bear.”

Various presenters discussed some of the unsavory practices of phone companies and cable companies -- practices that take place because of monopoly (or duopoly) status. Wireless Internet (and voice-over-ip) were touted as ways of short-circuiting the power of these monopolies. The prevailing viewpoint is that the monopolies get away with their bad behavior because we, the public, let them.

There were many interesting presenters covering the subject of the Internet commons from many angles. One of the high points of the day was when Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, joined the conference via telephone for about 20 minutes.

The day ended with an engaging roundtable discussion on “Information freedom and the ubiquity of the Internet, computers and code.” Jay Sulzberger, director of New Yorkers for Fair Use, was one of the most entertaining and engaging speakers of the day. Jamie Love, executive director of the Consumer Project on Technology, explained that he’s been doing a lot of work on world health issues (i.e. pharmaceuticals in developing nations) and is glad to be back visiting consumer Internet issues. Fred von Lohmann, staff attorney at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, was particularly astute and clear-headed in his comments. It’s no surprise that he recently received the California Lawyer of the Year award. I was not able to locate his blog, but I’m keen to follow the work he’s doing. He is one hundred percent on target and one of the best hopes for public interest Internet advocacy.

The value of this conference is that I was exposed to many peers and colleagues who I had never met or heard before. I’ll be better able to explain telecom, privacy and Internet commons matters to friends and colleagues. Kudos to the conference organizers, Seth Johnson and Daniel Berninger. They succeeded in their goals.

(I wasn’t able to make it to the second day of the conference, but the panelists of the second day looked to be even better than the first day’s panelists.)

Blogs of some of the conference participants:

Phil Shapiro