Dear Governor Brown:
When I went to work for NASA as an AI researcher in 1988 there was no World Wide Web. The first web browser, Netscape Navigator, was still three years in the future. There was no Amazon, no Facebook, no Wikipedia. If you wanted to look something up, you consulted your home encyclopedia (if you were fortunate enough to have one), or you went to the library, or you did without. Nine years later I took a year off from my job at NASA to work for an obscure little silicon valley startup company called Google. Since then I have co-founded three startups of my own and invested in about 20 others.
Today we take for granted an array of services beyond the wildest dreams of even science fiction writers a mere generation ago. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had a front row seat in one of the greatest technological revolutions ever produced by human civilization, and even to have participated in some key parts of it.
One of the many factors that contributed to the success of Google and the other internet companies whose services we enjoy today was the principle of net neutrality: that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, and that telecommunications companies who provide the underlying infrastructure must not give preferential treatment to one service provider over another. The internet is what it is today in no small measure because net neutrality made it the very definition of a level playing field.
Net neutrality did not begin as a legal principle but an economic one. It is hard to imagine now, but in the early days there was a tremendous amount of skepticism about the commercial potential of the internet. All of the content on the web was new because the web itself was new, and all of it was welcome because all of it contributed toward the critical mass needed to push it over the edge to commercial success.
Today the internet has become one of the pillars of the modern economy, but its future viability as a venue for continued innovation is very much in doubt. This is because the telcoms want to undo net neutrality, one of the crucial ingredients that led to the success of the internet in the first place.
When I went to work for Google it really was a startup company. The industry leader at the time was a company called Yahoo. Remember Yahoo? It twice pased up opportunities to buy Google, first in 1998 and then again in 2002, and the rest, as they say, is history. But if net neutrality had not been in place at the time, things might have gone very differently. Without net neutrality, the telcoms could have restricted access to Google’s servers, and one of the greatest success stories in American capitalism might never have happened. Why would the telecoms do this? Why, for the money, of course! Yahoo could have afforded to pay more than Google for access back then.
Today, Google, Facebook and Amazon are in the same position that Yahoo was in the late 1990s, and the obscure startups that will challenge them some day are just that: obscure. You haven’t heard of them yet, but I promise you they are out there. If we want those companies to produce tomorrow’s technological revolutions it is vital that we do not allow them to be killed in their infancy by the current industry leaders and greedy telecoms.
But this is not just about the future of innovation. It is also about who decides what internet services consumers are able to access. Free and open access to communications infrastructure should be considered a fundamental right. The founders even gave Congress the explicitly enumerated power to establish a post office, which was the state-of-the-art communications technology in 1788. Even today, the internet is built on research and development that was paid for with taxpayer dollars Quite literally the people, not the telecoms, own the internet.
The telecoms would have you believe that eliminating net neutrality would somehow benefit consumers and stimulate innovation. This is utter hogwash. Eliminating net neutrality would benefit no one but the telecoms, and even that is only for the short term. It would stifle innovation, reduce consumer choice, and ultimately hinder the economy. It is a power-and-money grab by the telecoms, pure and simple.
That’s why I’m urging you, governor Brown, to sign SB 822, the only state-level bill that would restore all the key net neutrality protections that the FCC voted to repeal in 2017. California has the opportunity to step up where the federal government has abdicated its responsibilities. The on-ramps to the internet must be kept open to everyone on an equal basis, or tomorrow’s technological revolutions will die in infancy.
Ron Garret, Ph.D.
Emerald Hills, California