Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Robber Barons Of The Web

What happens when easy Internet access is taken away?
"The internet providers lost the battle and won the war," said a former Obama administration official who refused to be identified while criticizing the administration. "They've got their hooks into most members of Congress and both major parties." Said another: "Godspeed to the American consumer. We could be screwed and not know until it's too late."

If net neutrality dies and the internet "rails" suddenly become more expensive and less reliable via monopolies, the protests will be loud. Cheap, easy access to information, entertainment and e-commerce are as engrained in modern American life as the telegraph and trains had become in early 20th century. Take that away, and the elites will pay.

That brings me back to the Gilded Age, when innovative entrepreneurs morphed into monopolists who corrupted Washington and exploited workers. They were corralled by the era's "new media," so-called muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell. It was Tarbell who wrote a series of magazine articles on Rockefeller and Standard Oil that put an ugly human face on the trusts, galvanizing the nation behind Roosevelt's fledgling populism.

In one installment, Tarbell wrote of the struggles of independent oil producers whose freight rates were suddenly doubled by the railway trusts. It had long been understood that since "the railroad held its right of way from the people," it must "be just to the people," she wrote, "treating them without discrimination" regardless of the volume of business.

If she were alive today, would Tarbell write the same of Comcast, Verizon and AT&T? She would certainly conclude that, in an echo of the Gilded Age, great fortunes are being made and tough decisions await. Too much regulation hurts economic growth and new industry. Too little regulation stifles economic and social mobility.
Where are the new trust busters?

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