#StopTheSlowLane – The Net is a Social Necessity

It’s time to rally again to the cause of net neutrality. We need the net to be open. We need the pipes not to discriminate against content. But, more, we should shift the debate. This is fundamentally about the role of the net in our lives. It is time we get to the core issue:

THE INTERNET IS A SOCIAL NECESSITY

We need the net, like we need water and electricity. You can’t function as a productive member of society without Internet access. So we should start talking about bandwidth and access as a fundamental social underpinning of our health and welfare.

In that context, tying access and bandwidth to content is obviously a mistake. It is fundamentally wrong. Not just because it allows large companies to control and distort what is carried, and more importantly, what is not carried on the net. It undermines the utility of a basic component of social fabric.

It is similar to allowing Walmart trucks to have dedicated lanes on our highways. The parallel argument would be: the majority of Americans shop at Walmart and the resultant efficiencies would help the majority gain better access to the goods they want. And because it would allow Walmart to optimize their trucks in ways they couldn’t if the roads weren’t integrated with their trucks…which benefits everyone due to fuel efficiencies, safety, etc.

But, it would be fundamentally wrong, and the reason has nothing to do with those arguments. It would be wrong because access to our roads is a fundamental social necessity. Individuals and business depend on road access to function in our society. Discriminatory access undermines our socio-economic system.
Today we’re utilizing the efficiencies and advantages of the net and net connected devices to re-engineer everything we do. This is already having tremendous impacts on our quality of life. Private companies, government, and individual social interactions use the net to transform themselves for the better. Web commerce, the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act, Meaningful Use initiatives for medical records – examples could fill volumes; there is not a single aspects of society that is not being transformed by the net.

Net access and bandwidth are too fundamental to be cooped by private interests for competitive advantage. Of course private interests and private capital are needed to effectively build and evolve the net. But we need to think of it like we think of electricity and water. Our lives would look very different if we let GE match their power plants to their electrical appliances. If in the 1950s GE had developed and people had accepted a system that guaranteeing optimized power from GE plants to GE appliances, we might have had better washers and dryers in our homes for a time. But it would have inhibited the development of virtually every powered device in our homes today.

We need policy that ensures everyone has net access and encourages continual increase of indiscriminate bandwidth. We can’t allow bandwidth to be tied to content. We can’t restrict the content that any part of internet carry. We need to translate privacy, property rights and commerce laws to net infrastructure. This is perhaps one of the most important policy imperatives of our generation.

Be Smart to Attract Smart

A friend of mine, who recently moved his tech company to Portland from SF, is joining a group of other Tech execs for a meeting with the governor. He asked me what I suggest he discuss…what should the State be doing to improve the Tech eco-system in Oregon?

I’ve always believed that a good entrepreneurs don’t let the government get in their way. Like Gary V puts it “I’m completely of the notion the government can’t stop me.” But despite my libertarian business leanings, I think there are things the State of Oregon and the City of Portland should be doing. Oregon and Portland can leverage its strength – affordable, high quality of life – and encourage the continued influx of over-educated young people.

There is a burgeoning creative class in Portland, yet our economy is out pacing the talent pool. I don’t know of a single local tech company that isn’t wanting for additional talent. My own company SweetSpot hasn’t been without a slew of unfilled reqs for the last three years. Oregon State University, Portland State University and other Oregon programs are upping their game and turning out more qualified programmers, but that isn’t enough…we have to continue to import.

First, we could start a program to target the top several dozen Computer Science programs across the country. Any graduating student with a 3.0 or better should be provided a plane ticket to Portland, a couple nights at the Ace and an intro to half a dozen local tech companies. With Portland’s national reputation, there’d be no problem wooing some of the best and the brightest out for a few days of micro brews, fine food and interviews. State and local development agencies could fund this. A few hundred thousand dollars could see a very good return in the form of highly compensated new taxpayers.

Second, we need to advance policies to improve and encourage life for Tech companies. Oregon and Portland should embrace the digital re-invention of all our daily activities. Things that can continue to make Portland a great place to live, especially for highly educated young people. We should reverse the silly antiquated policies that restrict services like AirBnB, Uber, Lyft and other “sharing economy” apps. By embracing these innovative services, we not only improve our quality of life, but also encourage innovation and growth for local tech companies. It’s time our city leaders get their heads out of their…out of the sand…and figure out creative ways to encourage, not inhibit these new services.

Don’t treat new ride sharing services like antiquated taxi and traditional limousine services. Don’t treat AirBnB like traditional hotel services. Embrace and encourage digital reputation and dynamic application mechanisms to enforce quality and safety with regulations as a backstop. Embrace game dynamics that drive pricing and usage optimization decreasing congestion and waste.

With a few policy changes, Oregon and Portland could go from technical backwater that can’t even develop a functioning web site to the place every smart technical savvy person wants to live. We’re competing for talent with San Francisco, Boston, and New York, not to mention London and Berlin. It’s time we start acting like it.