Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: Internet

Political risks to the future of the Internet

This week, I had the opportunity to watch Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures give his talk on the threats to a free and open Internet. These issues have been near and dear to my heart for many years, and I’d encourage you to watch it.

He points out that the current threats to the Internet arise from the fact that the Internet is a network of networks, and those networks are often threats to established hierarchies. Established hierarchies don’t go down without a fight, that’s true whether we’re talking about cable companies, record companies, or government agencies that want to be able to wiretap anyone, anytime. They are willing to spend big bucks to preserve their businesses for as long as they can. That’s not news to anybody who’s been paying attention.

What did occur to me is that the way the Internet wins is by increasing productivity — by enabling us to get more out of existing resources. In a time when economic growth is stagnant, it is very difficult for the forces of the Internet to win in the political arena for this reason.

Albert talked about the fact that municipal governments are being lobbied by hotels to clamp down on Airbnb. The hotels don’t want the competition and government agencies are willing to listen to the hospitality industry. Hotels are big business. They generate jobs, they pay taxes, and a thriving hospitality sector is a key to bringing in tourist and business travel dollars.

Airbnb is great because it makes it very simple for regular people to put their resources to more productive use. If you have a spare room, or a vacation home, or any other place where people can stay, Airbnb makes it easy to turn it into an economic asset. For people who are traveling, they can save money and often stay in more interesting accommodations than a generic motel by the interstate.

If the economy were operating at full capacity, this increased efficiency would be fantastic. Basically, we’d see resources that would be put into opening new hotels put toward other projects instead. Future hotel workers would work in other industries. That’s not how things are now, though. Increasing productivity just adds more slack to the economy, slowing our recovery. Airbnb is just one example of the Internet’s most common pattern of disruption.

The Internet is wonderful because it is a massive productivity enhancer. It also sucks because it’s a massive productivity enhancer. It’s what puts the Internet on the wrong side of most political fights from the beginning.

Craig Newmark on Internet literacy

Craig Newmark explains why it’s important for our next President to be Internet literate.

Why Johnny can’t Google

One issue that’s been percolating in the Presidential election is the fact that John McCain isn’t an Internet user. For example, here’s former John Edwards blogger Tracy Russo questioning McCain aide Mark Soohoo yesterday on the subject.

The original event that led people to start questioning the idea of having an Internet-illiterate President was McCain’s statement on this video from a few months ago that he doesn’t use a computer. Matthew Yglesias weighed in on this matter today.

It’s tempting to apply George W. Bush’s famous soft bigotry of low expectations and assume that McCain’s an old guy, and old guys just aren’t computer users. However, I have an anecdote that should undermine that assumption.

Back in 1997 I worked for an IT consulting firm that built Web sites, set up email systems, designed networks, and so forth. One of our clients was the George Bush Presidential library in College Station, Texas. The company was responsible for setting up the LAN for the library, getting email up and running, and so forth. One of the tasks on that project was setting up email accounts for President Bush and his friends (folks like Brent Scowcroft), generating PGP keys, and teaching them how to use them.

President Bush has a good 12 years on John McCain, and he had his own laptop, email account, and PGP key ten years ago. He even had his own humorous domain name, which I won’t divulge for the sake of the former President’s privacy. (I checked it out in whois not long ago and he’s still the owner.)

If President Bush was handling his own email a decade ago even though he has staffers who can take care of that sort of thing for him, why isn’t John McCain doing it now? I find it troubling when anyone isn’t be curious enough about this whole Internet thing to try it out in this day and age. It’s kind of a big deal.

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