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.