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Document Type

Article

Publication Date

Summer 2016

Publication Citation

91 Indiana Law Journal 1309 (2016)

Abstract

Network neutrality has dominated broadband policy debates for the past decade. While important, network neutrality overshadows other policy levers that are equally important to the goals of better, cheaper, and more open broadband service. This lack of perspective has historical precedent—and understanding this history can help refocus today’s policy debate. In the 1960s and 1970s, telephone companies threatened the growth of the nascent data industry. The FCC responded with a series of rulemakings known as the “Computer Inquiries” proceedings. In the literature, Computer Inquiries enjoys hallowed status as a key foundation of the Internet’s rise.

This Article, however, argues that Computer Inquiries is less important than it seems. A series of lesser-known FCC proceedings was more important to the development of the “pre-Internet”—a term I use to describe the ancestral data networks that ultimately evolved into the Internet. When viewed in historical context, Computer Inquiries did not create growth, but instead reflected the growth that the pre-Internet proceedings had already unleashed. Computer Inquiries, however, contributed to the pre-Internet in other ways that the literature overlooks. Specifically, it became a crucial source of information that influenced the more important pre-Internet proceedings. Understanding how the FCC helped build the pre-Internet also provides important lessons for today’s modern policy debates. One implication is that today’s open Internet depended not upon “light touch” restraint, but upon aggressive regulatory enforcement over many years. It also illustrates how the current policy debate focuses too narrowly on network neutrality rules to the exclusion of other proceedings and policy levers that can construct a larger “habitat” of innovation.

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