Public Policy Causes Slow Internet

October 24th, 2010 by Christian

(or: A Giant Plaque Commemorating the Web)

An Open Letter to Everyone in the Universe:

I, Christian Sandvig, realize that the World Wide Web was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, British Citizen, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland.

Signed,
Christian Sandvig

You see, I appeared on NPR Marketplace last week to talk about Akamai’s latest State of the Internet Report. While sitting in the NPR affiliate studio in Urbana, Illinois I commented that I was sitting 100 yards away from a giant plaque commemorating the birth of the graphical web browser, an American invention.  This is true. Here is the giant plaque:

(Click to enlarge. Courtesy marc_smith on flickr.)

Sometimes when I walk by it to get a cup of coffee I see various kinds of people having their picture taken with it.  (I can’t find any good ones on flickr though except the above.)

I used this comment to make the point that America historically dominated the Internet and that our current middling ranking in various Internet reports (including Akamai’s) was a fall from strength.  However, when they edited the segment they paraphrased me as saying the Web Browser was an American invention.  It is not.  I didn’t say it was.  See the top of this post.

I also made the point that these between-country horserace comparisons were often a waste of time.  I noted that Germany won the “race to ISDN.” Yet it is not clear what the prize for that was.  Does anyone remember the race to ISDN?  The prize was probably a big brass plaque that’s now on display near the bathrooms in the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof.

(An ISDN user? Almost. ISDN was introduced in 1988.
Image from
Restructure.*)

I think broadband Internet rankings do matter (while the race to ISDN did not) because we know what the Internet is.  It isn’t a new technological bet, and we know that fast Internet can have positive economic effects. But this did not make it into the interview, alas.

It was a fun interview. My major point was supposed to be that public policy causes the Internet to be slow or fast in the US vs. other countries, and not geography, technology, or fate.  I think that did come across pretty well.  To learn more about it, see Yochai Benkler’s Berkman Center Comparative Broadband Report from February.

(*) — Actually I was an ISDN subscriber so maybe that is a picture of me.

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