The End of the Internet as We Know It?

From Newsmax
April 28, 2022

Does Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter mark the end of the Internet as we know it?

We should all certainly hope so.

The imminent demise of anything widespread, useful, and popular always sounds scary. Any threat that such an ominous occurrence may be on the horizon—unless collective action arises to thwart it—mobilizes forces in opposition. Politicians, pundits, and activists crawl out of the woodwork standing strong in defense of the status quo, the tried and true, the comfortable and the comforting.

It’s invariably nonsense. That’s why no one—not the hysterics supporting net neutrality, not the tech executives clamoring to keep their liability exemption—ever claims that any of the dreaded developments will end the Internet. Their sleight of hand arrives in the qualifier “as we know it.”

True, any ending can create a debilitating vacuum. History, technology, incentive systems, and capitalism, however, explain why such vacuums are rare. As long as demand for a product persists, the end of the version “we know” will inevitably spur the rise of a superior version.

Take a step backwards. Who stands to lose big if the Internet evolves into something better? The incumbent players that dominate today’s Internet. Their fear is driving the entire meltdown over the Musk acquisition.

A handful of decision-makers at a handful of corporations dictate the policies and practices defining today’s Internet. Their management serves the interests of their preferred political factions, politicians, celebrities, and corporate partners. None of those people want to see the terrain change in any way that might open them up to greater competition.

While social media policies and practices are not the entire Internet ballgame, they are a very important part of it. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, the announcements he has made about it, and his general approach to business all suggest that he is about to shake things up. The force driving his move into this new industry seems to be disruption. That creates immediate discomfort incumbents, their fans, and those upon whom they bestow their favors. The rest of us should cheer.

There is indeed nothing new under the sun. Comfortable monopolists and oligopolists often invest heavily in terrifying the public about what (shudder) might happen were anyone ever to pry their hands from the paternalistic control they wield so benignly. Its far easier, and promises a far more certain return, than investing in innovation.

Few did it better than Ma Bell, AT&T’s wonderful telephone monopoly that kept American telecommunications predictable, safe, stodgy, and expensive through most of the twentieth century. Ma Bell’s cozy relationship with the FCC ensured that nothing uncontrolled or innovative happened to alter our communications for decades.

Her demise in 1984 unleashed massive experimentation and growth, novel service offerings, plummeting prices, and unparalleled improvements in quality. How? First, by injecting competition into what had been a monopoly. Second, by turning what had been a standalone product into an open platform—thereby enabling entirely new competitive industries to push American telecommunications forward.

The effects of that disruption to telephony “as we knew it” were hardly unusual. Nearly all industries that fall into monopoly or cozy oligopoly structures become sclerotic. Their stewards spend more time telling the public how grateful we should be for their leadership than they do innovating, improving their products, or—most dangerous of all—opening their platforms.

Social media has fallen into that trap. The leading incumbents coordinate their curation to elevate the same voices and viewpoints while stifling others. In a competitive industry, if a single network banned President Trump (or any of the other prominent evictees), a competitor would have redoubled its efforts to acquire the parts of the market dismayed at his eviction. The ban only stuck because a small number of key decision-makers coordinated their decisions (in a possible but not yet proven violation of the antitrust laws).

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter threatens to disrupt the cozy oligopoly. He’s promised to explore product and service innovations. Some may prove impractical. Some will fail. Some will redefine the user experience. Differentiation and competition will rise.

His greatest promised disruption, however, is openness. Musk promises to end the lockstep censorship that has declared certain controversial, debatable topics, perspectives, and speakers “true” and others “misinformation,” then moved to eliminate or degrade the disfavored set.

He can do more. A truly open Twitter would come to resemble a bulletin board. Users will undoubtedly miss at least some of the current curation. Opening Twitter’s APIs will allow third parties to offer curation and filtering services—effectively turning today’s social networks into platforms upon which entirely new industries can emerge and thrive.

Such developments would be great for consumers. They would be terrible for the incumbent oligopolists and the political factions they serve.

That, in a nutshell, is the cause of the furor. The end of the Internet as we know it? Only if our luck holds out.


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