19th Century Net Neutrality (and what it means for the 21st Century)

So what do bits of data and coal locomotive have in common?

It turns out a lot.

In researching an article for a book I’ve discovered an interesting parallel between the two in regard to the issue of Net Neutrality. What is Net Neutrality? It is the idea that when you use the Internet, you do so free of restrictions. That any information you download gets treated the same as any other piece of information. This means that your Internet service provider (say Rogers, Shaw or Bell) can’t choose to provide you with certain content faster than other content (or worse, simply block you from accessing certain content altogether).

Normally the issue of Net Neutrality gets cast in precisely those terms – do bits of data flowing through fibre optic and copper cables get treated the same, regardless of whose computer they are coming from and whose computer they are going to. We often like to think these types of challenges are new, and unique, but one thing I love about being a student of history, is that there are almost always interesting earlier examples to any problem.

Take the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the term would have been foreign to them, Net Neutrality was a raging issue, but not in regard to the telegraph cables of the day.  No, it was an issue in regards to railway networks.

In 1903 the United States Congress passed the Elkins Act. The Act forbade railway companies from offering, and railway customers from demanding, preferential rates for certain types of goods. Any “good” that moved over the (railway) network had to be priced and treated the same as any other “good.” In short, the (railway) network had to be neutral and price similar goods equally. What is interesting is that many railway companies welcomed the act because some trusts (corporations) paid the standard rail rate but would then demand that the railroad company give them rebates.

What’s interesting to me is that

a) Net Neutrality was a problem back in the late 19th and early 20th century; and

b) Government regulation was seen as an effective solution to ensuring a transparent and fair market place on these networks

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to ensure that the 21st century (fibre optic) networks will foster economic growth, create jobs and improve productivity in much the same way the 19th and 20th century (railway) networks did for that era? If the answer is yes, we’d be wise to look back and see how those networks were managed effectively and poorly.  The Elkins Act is an interesting starting point, as it represented progressives efforts to ensure transparency and equality of opportunity in the marketplace so that it could function as an effective platform for commerce.

9 thoughts on “19th Century Net Neutrality (and what it means for the 21st Century)

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  3. Stv.

    I may be wrong, but doesn't the Elkins act talk specifically about the *billing* for the transport of good, and not, for instance, the routing or speed of delivery? For instance, lots of railways provide priority access for particular kinds of goods. For instance, passenger rail may have priority over goods on inter-urban routes during the day, but the inverse might be true at night. Or certain rail lines are reserved for the exlusive use of one vs the other. Which, to bring it back to the point, seems like the railways are legally allowed to “shape” their packets, if you will, which is what the telcos want. You wouldn't want your inter-urban express train stuck behind the local-line train. This is not to say that I think telcos should have that right – I don't – I firmly believe in net neutrality. But I do think maybe the railway-as-metaphor breaks down some under scrutiny. Nor does this negate the idea that government intervention can be a good thing.

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  6. David Eaves

    stv – yes, the Elkins act does talk about billing. The point here is that if you and I both want to move the same good over the network, the railway company has to treat us the same. The core principle of neutrality was being invoked.

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  7. Web Design Kent

    The U.S. has one of the slowest broadband networks in the world, despite the fact that we've been giving the telecoms tax breaks for the last 15 years to improve infrastructure, i.e. build better and faster pipelines. Verizon, Comcast and others have gotten filthy rich off of this corporate subsidy, but our speed still languishes. (Verizon is slowly rolling out its fiber optic network, FiOS, 15 years after the Clinton administration promised it to us.) It's hilarious that they would complain that new neutrality is “stifling innovation,” when it's actually their own laziness and a lack of regulatory oversight that has slowed down our information superhighway.

    Reply
  8. Web Design Kent

    The U.S. has one of the slowest broadband networks in the world, despite the fact that we've been giving the telecoms tax breaks for the last 15 years to improve infrastructure, i.e. build better and faster pipelines. Verizon, Comcast and others have gotten filthy rich off of this corporate subsidy, but our speed still languishes. (Verizon is slowly rolling out its fiber optic network, FiOS, 15 years after the Clinton administration promised it to us.) It's hilarious that they would complain that new neutrality is “stifling innovation,” when it's actually their own laziness and a lack of regulatory oversight that has slowed down our information superhighway.

    Reply

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