“The internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy—and our society—has ever known,” Barack Obama wrote this week. He was announcing his support for treating internet service like a public utility in the United States—and, by implication, for net neutrality, the idea that all internet traffic should have equal treatment.
His line must have rankled some folks at Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia. Hours later, the largest American internet provider responded to the president: ”The internet has not just appeared by accident or gift—it has been built by companies like ours investing and building networks and infrastructure.”
The exchange, reminiscent of the political posturing over “You didn’t build that,” suggested the debate will be framed as a struggle between government regulation and private enterprise. Ted Cruz, the Republican senator and likely presidential candidate, quickly called net neutrality “Obamacare for the internet.” The country’s chief communications regulator already has signaled he intends to “split the baby.” Of course.
But claims that government interference will inhibit innovation seem overblown. Under the current, relatively laissez-faire approach, internet service is slower and more expensive in the US than in comparable countries, in part because there is little to no competition. Classifying internet providers as utilities is, in that sense, simply a stopgap measure. It recognizes they already are government-supported monopolies with a special duty to maintain the nation’s communications systems, like phone companies before them. If Obama really wants to protect the open internet, he also should seek to block the merger of Comcast and its closest rival, Time Warner Cable.
Is the internet a gift or a good? (Or perhaps, as Pope Francis would have it, “a gift from God“?) Obviously it is all of the above, born of research by the US military, spread through private investment by firms like Comcast, and now enmeshed in every part of the global economy. If that’s not a utility, what is? —Zachary M. Seward
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Actually, six this time. Sorry. We just couldn’t pick.
The history of the planet’s most powerful currency. The US dollar, born 100 years ago with the passing of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, has an origin story rife with conflicts. Matt Phillips relates how, thanks partly to two World Wars, the greenback went from financial weakling to linchpin of the global economy.
The strange symbiosis of people and jellyfish. For long stretches of time, jellyfish pose no threat. Then every so often, they suddenly “bloom” and get tangled in our nets, clog factory cooling systems, and wash up on the beach. These blooms are getting bigger and more frequent—and, Gwynn Guilford explains, that’s kinda our fault.
Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement gives women a voice. Democracy is still the protestors’ key tenet. But there’s a deeper narrative, as Lily Kuo and Heather Timmons found out, about the role of women, in a society that only a generation or two ago rarely even educated the opposite sex.
What do you do with an old floppy-disk factory? Why, you grow lettuce in it. Toshiba knows all about lighting, water disinfection, and power generation. Dan Frommer visited to the Japanese company’s clean room, just outside Tokyo, to take a look at a crop that doesn’t need pesticides, doesn’t have bugs, and doesn’t need to be washed.
The world’s craziest tax-avoidance structures. When someone leaked secret Luxembourg tax deals for some 340 multinationals, Tim Fernholz and Jason Karaian decided to go through them all and find the most intricate, the most convoluted, and the most utterly ridiculous financing structures to ever be conjured up by creative accountants. These are their favorite 10.
India’s medical sterilizations. In the wake of this week’s arrest of a doctor who killed or injured dozens of women in sterilization operations, John Dayal digs up press releases published in 1976 showing the government’s desperation even then about overpopulation. India’s most famous doctor argues that sterilization is nothing less than “medical homicide”. And Devjyot Ghoshal and Saptarishi Dutta map where hundreds of deaths from the procedure have occurred.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
America’s struggle with the n-word. For white Americans, it’s an absolute taboo. For many African-Americans, it just means “dude.” The Washington Post has a thoughtful essay and compilation of videos examining the history-steeped, blood-soaked question: Is it OK to say “nigga”?
Loan sharks or startup heroes? OnDeck Capital has been hailed for using big data to disrupt the lending business. Its investors include Google Ventures and Peter Thiel. But it also charges extremely high interest rates, and partners with dubious brokers to drum up business. Zeke Faux and Dune Lawrence examine the company’s fascinating dual nature at Bloomberg Businessweek as it approaches an IPO.
Why the press worldwide is becoming less free. George Packer in the New Yorker summarizes a book by Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists. To summarize the summary: It’s the rise of elected autocrats like Putin and Erdogan; the thinning out of foreign bureaus; terrorists who target journalists; and digital surveillance.
A desperate crossing. Over the past three years, some 165,000 Syrians have sought asylum in the European Union. The final, harrowing step in their journey is often the choppy sea crossing between Turkey and Greece. Matina Stevis of the Wall Street Journal rode along with Greek search-and-rescue operations, telling the stories of the desperate refugees who risk everything to escape the horrors back home.
When hipsters synchronize. There’s a reason why supposed nonconformists usually wind up looking the same—a mathematical reason, according to mathematician and neuroscientist Jonathan Touboul. The Washington Post’s Jeff Guo provides a detailed look at his model, which shows how new trends go mainstream.
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