Cory Doctorow:Net Neutrality for Writers: It’s All About the Leverage

Imagine this: you pick up the phone and call Vito’s, the excellent pizza joint down the road where your family’s gotten its favorite pepperoni and mushroom every Friday night for years. The phone rings once, twice, then:

‘‘AT&T: The number you have called is not engaged, but the recipient has not paid for premium service. Please hold for 30 seconds, or press ‘one’ to be connected to Domino’s immediately.’’

This is not an analogy to the Net Neutrality fight. This is an analogy to the ‘‘compromise’’ most governments and regulators (including the US Federal Communications Commission) are planning for the Internet. In their view, Internet Service Providers should be allowed to ‘‘manage’’ and ‘‘traffic shape’’ their networks to slow down packets from the sites you’re connecting to, provided they disclose that they are doing it. In the view of the world’s regulators, this is the best we can hope for from our telcoms policy in the 21st century.

The carriers, of course, hate this. They call it nanny-state regulation. In their view, telcoms companies should be free to retard the packets you request in perfect secrecy, as part of a larger strategy to blackmail web-sites and web-services into paying bribes for the privilege of access to ‘‘their users’’ (that is, you and me).

This is pretty crummy news from the point of view of J Random Internet user, but it’s even worse for writers and other creators.


How do successful writers use copyright? As negotiating leverage. Once you’re a successful, non-commodity writer – that is, a writer whose mere name can sell books and whose work can’t be freely interchanged in the publisher’s catalog or on the bookseller’s shelf with another writer’s work – copyright becomes a moderately useful tool for extracting funds from publishers. Copyright becomes a productive club-with-a-nail-through-it with which to threaten publishers who might consider publishing a well-known writer’s work without her permission. Likewise, copyright is a useful tool for publishers to use in threatening each other, should one publisher take it into his head to copy a competitor’s copyrighted books and sell them. Because of this, a successful writer can even auction her copyrights off between more than one publisher.

But just because copyright can be used for leverage some of the time, by some people, it doesn’t follow that it will always provide leverage: for example, you could give unknown writers hundreds of years’ worth of copyright, and it wouldn’t extract one more penny from any publisher, anywhere in the world. Think of poets: you could give every poet in the world a personal poet’s disemboweling pike of copyright enforcement, and it wouldn’t raise the word-rate for poetry. Copyright is only useful when it provides leverage; the rest of the time, it’s a creator’s vestigial appendix (at best) or a nagging hindrance (at worst).

Creators need leverage, and policies, technological changes, and laws that create leverage for artists result in more artists making more money. Contrariwise, changes to the law or technology that take away creators’ leverage end up doing real harm to creators’ fortunes.


An open, neutral Internet is one where anyone can start a kick-ass publishing platform merely by coming up with a good idea. Tim Berners-Lee famously invented the Web from his desk at CERN in Geneva as a tool for sharing scientific papers. Merely by distributing web browsers and web servers, TBL was able to invent his revolutionary publishing platform. Notably, he didn’t have to deploy an army of corporate negotiators to book meetings with suits at telcos around the world and work out under what terms every ISP would (or would not) allow the WWW to traverse its lines. Unsurprisingly, Berners-Lee is a staunch advocate of Net Neutrality.

Likewise, the creators of YouTube were able to simply kick-start the biggest, most successful video watching – and distributing – platform the world has ever seen merely by inventing it and shoving it out the door. They built it, we came, and no phone company got a veto over our desire to watch YouTube.

This delirious world of fast, unfettered invention has delivered untold leverage to creators. Publishers – and studios and record labels – used to be the only effective way to reach a large audience, the only way to extract money from them, the only way to distribute creative works to them. As a result, only a few very lucky, very resourceful creators were able to forgo the entertainment giants and strike out on their own. The rest of us had to take whatever they’d offer and like it (at least until we got big enough to make them bid against each other).

You don’t need to self-publish to get a better deal from a publisher or other gatekeeper: you merely need to be able to self-publish. A negotiation in which the two choices are ‘‘Do it my way’’ and ‘‘Go pound sand’’ is not one that will end well for the supplicant. The mere existence of a better option than ‘‘Go pound sand’’ raises the floor on our negotiations.

In other words: because the Internet had opened up the possibility of a myriad of companies, individuals and co-ops providing distribution, audience and income to artists, the old, established institutions now have to compete with someone other than each other, at least at the bottom of the market. And since most artists spend most of their careers at the bottom of the market, the largest benefit you can deliver to the arts is to create a whole chaotic marketplace of services and platforms clamoring for their works.


Not that the telcos really care about this. Art, schmart. They just want to get paid, and paid, and paid. First they get paid when a company like Google buys a heptillion dollars’ worth of Internet access for a service like YouTube. Then they get your $10-$80/month for your home broadband. Then they get paid a third time by charging Google to send bits to your broadband link.

But the entertainment giants aren’t all that upset by the idea of having to pay twice to access their audience. For one thing, they can afford it. That’s what the ‘‘giant’’ in ‘‘entertainment giant’’ means. But more importantly, that’s how they’ve always done it. Fanning out a horde of business-development gladhanders to sort out the details of distribution deals with disparate channel operators around the world is second nature for them. There’s a floor of their corporate headquarters devoted to this kind of thing. They’ve got their own annual picnic and everything.

Two-gals-in-a-garage do not have this asset. They have two gals. They have a garage. If Net Neutrality is clobbered the way the telcos hope it will be, the next Web or YouTube won’t come from disruptive inventors in a garage; it will come from the corporate labs at one of the five big media consortia or one of a handful of phone and cable companies. It will be sold as a ‘‘premium’’ service, and it won’t upset anyone’s multi-million-dollar status quo.

More immediately: if the only way to use the Internet to widely and efficiently distribute creative work is to convince a big media company to carry it on its ‘‘premium’’ service, kiss your artistic negotiating leverage goodbye. While artists have been going bonkers over threats to copyright, the media titans and the telcoms ogres have quietly formed a pact that will establish them as permanent gatekeepers to the world’s audiences.

Not because reaching those audiences is difficult or technically challenging, but because they’ve sewn up the market.

And hey, Google must have finally grown up, because they just filed a joint brief with Verizon to the FCC saying non-Neutral networks are OK with them – why not? It’s not as if Google will have trouble paying the danegeld. And the next Google will have to raise the capital to bribe the world’s ISPs before they can even set up shop.


Meanwhile: every telcoms company is as big a corporate welfare bum as you could ask for. Try to imagine what it would cost at market rates to go around to every house in every town in every country and pay for the right to block traffic and dig up roads and erect poles and string wires and pierce every home with cabling. The regulatory fiat that allows these companies to get their networks up and running is worth hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

If phone companies want to operate in the ‘‘free market,’’ then let them: the FCC could give them 60 days to get all their rotten copper out of our dirt, or we’ll buy it from them at the going scrappage rates. Then, let’s hold an auction for the right to be the next big telcoms company, on one condition: in exchange for using the public’s rights-of-way, you have to agree to connect us to the people we want to talk to, and vice-versa, as quickly and efficiently as you can.

Here’s something every creator, every free speech advocate, every copyright maximalist and every copyfighter should agree on: allowing the channels to audiences to be cornered by a handful of incumbents is bad news for all of us. It doesn’t matter that the lame-duck, sellout FCC won’t stand up for us. It doesn’t matter that Canada’s CRTC and the UK’s Ofcom are no better, that regulators around the world are as toothless as newborns. This is the big fight for us – the fight over who gets to decide who will be heard and how.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the January 2011 issue of Locus Magazine

24 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow:Net Neutrality for Writers: It’s All About the Leverage

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  • January 3, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Typical Doctorow. He sets up a “straw man” – a practice in which neither a telephone company nor an ISP would ever engage – and then proceeds to rail against it. The fact is that the biggest threat to expressive freedom on the Internet is – as we have seen in oppressive countries like China and even here in the United States – government regulation. No Internet service provider has EVER censored legal content. However, Amazon – a content provider – felt compelled to take down Wikileaks because it had government contracts and the Chinese government censors extensively. Other content providers, like Google (owner of YouTube), have engaged in unabashed censorship of the Net in countries like India.

    Rather than criticizing the US government for not regulating enough, Doctorow should be expressing concern that the camel’s nose has just entered the tent and government regulators – for example, the FCC’s censorious Commissioner Michael Copps – will soon be trying to suppress controversial content. But the radical Doctorow is too anti-business to believe that any business, especially an ISP, might be doing anything good for its customers or for free expression. Lest he forget: every working author is a business, albeit a small one.

  • January 4, 2011 at 2:46 am

    There’s nothing inherently new about the net neutrality debate. Those in power have always tried to control access to the discourse and so manipulate its content. The real interest lies in the longer term potential for democratising access the means of publication. The more people have the freedom to communicate amongst themselves, the less they are dependent on the large corporations for making themselves heard. This threatens the monopoly capital has established in the print and broadcast media. Now, instead of waiting to be recognised as a political commentator by the editor of a newspaper or “news” channel like Fox, you can start your own blog and make yourself heard on forums around the world — unless, of course, government regulations interfere.

  • January 4, 2011 at 9:28 am

    I have a feeling, Mr. Doctorow, that you don’t understand how ISPs or phone companies work, neither do you understand what Net Neutrality is actually about. Further, you don’t seem to understand free market economics.

    Since the first few paragraphs sort of set up your entire article, I’ll only take the time to explain how your thinking is flawed.

    Let’s imagine that a situation took place as you say. The phone company willfully blocks your access to the pizza place of your choice because they haven’t paid the premium. Customers are angry. The pizza place is frustrated. Then Comcast comes along and says to the pizza place, “Hey, I’ll make sure that all your customers always get through right away, for half the price AT&T would charge you for it.” The pizza place gladly latches on! They can afford it and it’s going to mean more customers more often! Other phone companies begin following suit as well, because they’ve discovered that 200 customers paying a half price premium is better than 100 customers paying a full price premium.

    This is what happens in de-regulated free markets. Companies are forced to compete to offer better services at lower prices. When all the companies are offering services at a price too high for the customers to justify paying, an entrepreneur comes along offering the same services at lower prices, because he knows that he’ll get more customers as a reward. In order to compete, all the other companies also must lower their prices.

    This is how ISPs operate as well, and how they would continue to operate without the Net Neutrality act, and everyone, including writers, would benefit. But with Net Neutrality, not only does it stifle the free market system, but it also allows the government powers to regulate the type of content. This further hampers free speech and the ability for everyone, writers included, to benefit from the world of technology.

    Net Neutrality is not a benefit to writers in any way. It’s one more step toward a police state in which the government is in control of all information.

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  • January 11, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    I have a feeling, Brandon, that you don’t understand what regulation is, neither do you understand what Net Neutrality is actually about. Further, you don’t seem to understand how monopolistic market economics work.

  • January 11, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Brandon, that’s exactly why your ISP insists on a year contract with an expensive exit clause before they’ll sell you service. And that’s exactly why ISPs in small markets work so hard to suppress competition. Possibly somewhere there is a free market for internet service, but I don’t live there. In most markets, there is at best a duopoly; in small markets like mine, there is really only one choice. And the local ISP monopoly is _very_ happy to sell the commodity that they *own*–my eyes–to the highest bidder.

  • January 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    While I enjoyed the start of Brandons critique it sort of fell through at the end.
    Net neutrality is only about equal access and has nothing to do with government censorship.
    For monopolistic markets economics to be a modell for how isp operate in the market they have to have some level of control over internet access and distribution. While verizon might provide better access to some services this would only affect verizons customers. The content distributor would have to be throttled by every isp and vice versa. There are thousands of isp that would gladly compete for disillusioned customers and a monopol of isp’s controlling services is unfathomable. Most isp provide some services exclusively to their customers, but for content providers to pay for exclusive access by having isp throttling other services isn’t economically wise or even a marketable approach to win customers.
    So net neutrality comes down to what would happen if an isp had global control and market share large enough to be unaffected by free markets economics.

  • January 12, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Judge by his website, Brandon is a loony anti-abortionist Christian “science fiction” writer. That should tell you everything you need to know about Brandon as a font of wisdom.

  • January 12, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Nice writing Cory!

  • January 12, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Brandon, What happens when there is just one ISP in your whole area? As in my case. If my ISP doesn’t like my preferred pizza joint, then I’m SOL, there is NO competition here.

  • January 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    I understand the argument that in places where there is only one ISP it can seem as though it’s allowing for a monopoly. I used to live in such an area. The local telephone company was the only source of cable TV and internet as well.

    Then Time Warner noticed that this was a market where they could provide some competition. They did so. So the local telephone company lowered its prices, offered some other incentives, and it really came down to a decision between local smalltown business or corporate business.

    Until Comcast purchased Time Warner and then suddenly they were offering services far better than we’d seen in this area before, and at much better prices. Many people, including myself, started moving over to Comcast. Lately the local phone company has greatly increased their services and lowered their prices, but Comcast is still the more economical option.

    If Net Neutrality had existed ten years ago I have a feeling we’d still be buying from the local phone company, because there would be no room for competition. And our prices would be exorbitant, because they would find “need” to increase prices as their costs continue to go up.

    The problem with all your arguments for Net Neutrality is that they rest on the myth that corporations are in some way omnipotent in a free market system. That is simply not the case. They rely on the consumer. Government regulation takes power out of the hands of the consumers and puts them in the hands of politicians. Who usually are taking bribes from corporations that have learned to play the system. You take that tool away from them, the corporations are forced to do honest business. Net Neutrality is going the wrong way, and just taking more power away from us, not helping us in any way.

    And as to me being a loony because I’m a Christian and also into Science Fiction (and what does my stance on abortion have to do with Net Neutrality?), throw me in the bin with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, then, in regards to my writing. But please evaluate my arguments on their own merit, not on a bigoted view of my character.

  • January 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Brandon: The reason why the phone company can not do what Cory describes is due to Title 2 regulation (202. [47 U.S.C. 202]) and not some free market dynamic. If Title 2 regulation did not exsist, the phone company could easily make such a charge as Cory describes. I would like to describe a slightly different hypothetical situation. You are on AT&T and Vito’s is on Comcast. When you call Vito’s the call would be leaving AT&T’s phone network, and when it left is when AT&T would delay it with the message Cory described. Now true, if you and Vito’s were on the same provider, you would not experience the message (but if we were all on one provider that would not be free market either). Why would the phone company do this? Because it is another revenue stream.
    With ISPs the example is kind of reversed. Instead of your request (call) being delayed as it goes off of your ISP’s network, the response as it comes on your ISP’s network would be “delayed”. An example would be, you request a streaming movie from NetFlix. NetFlix has not paid a “premium service” fee to your ISP so the connection is relegated to whatever your ISP feels is necessary, which can lead to choppy video playback. Hulu however has paid the “premium service” fee so the ISP makes sure the video playback is crisp and clean (by allocating the appropriate bandwidth, possibly from non-“premium service” payers). The chances of Hulu just eating the cost of that “premium service” fee is slim to none (why would they?), which means that cost will be passed along to the customer (you).
    Anyway, the original example of a phone call to Vito’s has nothing to do with a free market, it deals with current regulation.

  • January 14, 2011 at 5:49 am

    I advise everyone who thinks a market solution is preferable go read up on early AT&T history or the railroad tycoons from the 18th century. Fact is we’ve been down this road before. Generally speaking, market economics need competition to work. Any ISP/Telco environment will not have this as the cable going into the socket of your home is generally owned by one provider and one only.

    Without net neutrality you are certainly free to choose providers – the 10-100 Mbit cable in your wall or an ADSL modem with <1-8 Mbit/s coverage at roughly the same price.

    Brandon fails to take into account that the market would demand the existence of numerous network backbones being present in order to introduce competition as a factor for the vast majority of the potential customers.

    And Brett Glass seems to have missed the fact that numerous Telcos have done exactly as Cory writes in his article. I suggest he read up on how Skype service has been throttled in many networks owned by ISP's either running their own VoIP service or affiliated with such a service provider?

    Government regulation is always an evil, but even Friedman argues about the least evil solution. Genuine network neutrality simply means that any customer purchasing a certain amount of bandwidth should receive that bandwidth, without having to rely on the RECIPIENT site to have paid as well. You don't go on the road with a car with a speed limiter set depending on your end adress. You go on the road following the speed limits, light signals and road signs the same as everyone else does.

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  • January 14, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I should have said or instead of and in my last sentence and made it a bit more clear that what I was actually disputing was Corys enbittered and childish view of business practice. Yes net neutrality regulation should be enacted and if it doesn’t some isps will try or continue to throttle access to protect their own services; but it simply wouldn’t be in the way Cory envisioned.
    Big content distributors like google will probably never find it justifiable to pay an isp for anything at all. The problem net neutrality tries to adress could also go the other way.
    In this day and age while broadband access is not guaranteed and some places only have access to one isp net neutrality is neccessary to ensure an equal playing field. This is not because market economics would not fix the problem in the end but because it might take too much time to risk it.

  • January 21, 2011 at 8:02 am

    There’s nothing sadder than people like Brandon, who whinge about “free markets” when discussing companies that are, everywhere and always, oligopolies and monopolies. Having a choice between two options with infinite barriers to entry is no choice at all.

    (Which is what we’re seeing in Canada. What happens when a new, innovative, game-changing player like Netflix hits the market? The existing players reduce their transfer caps. Did their network capacity change? Nope. It’s just about protecting their settop box video-on-demand service.)

    Brandon’s view of economics is far more childish and naive than anything Cory has on offer.

  • January 21, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Oh, and Judd’s article is hilarious. Nothing like a mix of “government is the source of all ills” and “ISPs aren’t discriminating between packets yet, SO THEY CLEARLY NEVER WILL!” as an attempted trump card against, say, the demonstrable anti-competitive practices that we’ve seen in Canada.

    The government already HAS played a role here. It regulates spectrum auctions, and provides the official assent to the construction of infrastructure. State governments have already showed that they’re willing to pass laws to kill municipal broadband on behalf of favored nationwide ISPs, even though municipal broadband could have served as an important “pace car” for private providers to measure themselves against. And the CRTC routinely discriminates against small, innovative ISPs in Canada, ruling in favor of the big corps like Bell, Shaw, and Rogers.

    Net Neutrality is not a deviation from some supposed libertopia. You don’t LIVE in libertopia. All these arguments do is place that much more economic and political power in the hands of monopolists and oligopolists. And to be blunt, they really don’t need it.


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