NET NEUTRALITY, the Appian way

What one of Rome's early leaders can teach us about a fair Internet

by Steve Dunlop

When Verizon issued a press release in Morse code, warning that the FCC’s move toward “net neutrality” was imposing 1930’s rules on the Internet, I winced.  And not just because I’m old enough to know a little Morse code. 

Clever media relations gambit?  Absolutely.   Spot-on analogy?  Hardly.  

To find a comparison that’s truly relevant to today’s digital land of opportunity, we need to delve further into history than the advent of radio.  We need to turn the clock back.  Way back. 

 Appius Claudius Caecus, dicatator of ancient Rome.  Not exactly an Internet pioneer, but closer to the mark than you think. 

Appius Claudius Caecus, dicatator of ancient Rome.  Not exactly an Internet pioneer, but closer to the mark than you think. 

Appius Claudius Caecus (340 BC – 273 BC) was one of the critical figures in the building of ancient Rome.   He is best remembered not just for constructing the Appian Way - the early highway that connected Rome to the rest of the world - but also the first of hundreds of aqueducts that brought free-flowing, clean water to the city. 

As foundational as those aqueducts were to the growth of Rome, so the Internet is to the growth of our Information Age.  But Rome would never have been built if its leaders told their citizens to go find their own water. 

It’s therefore fair to ask: what sense would Appius have made of Verizon’s claim today?  How would he feel about creating special “fast lanes” for access to an indispensable public good?

We can only deduce.  But my guess is this proto-technocrat would have gone to bat for net neutrality, big time. 

Appius was a dictator.  But he had a strong individualist streak.   “Every man is the architect of his own fortune,” he is quoted as saying.  He was also, one could argue, an early democrat - with a small d - in the sense of enabling the little guy.   He extended voting privileges to those in rural areas who did not own their own land, and he even allowed the sons of freed slaves to serve in the Roman Senate - something quite radical at the time.  

To be sure, the wealthy in ancient Rome had water pipes going directly into their homes.  But their water didn’t arrive any faster, cleaner, or in greater quantities than anyone else’s.  All of Rome drew from the same sources.   Thanks to public fountains, baths, and drinking basins, everyone had more or less equal access to this essential public commodity.

“Usurping” the Internet

Appius went blind as an old man, and his writings have long been lost.  But we still know the name of one of his major works.  Tellingly, it’s titled De Usurpationibus (“Of Usurpations”).  

 A surviving section of the Aqua Appia, an aqueduct built by Appius Claudius Caecus, east of Rome.  Circa 312 BC.

A surviving section of the Aqua Appia, an aqueduct built by Appius Claudius Caecus, east of Rome.  Circa 312 BC.

It’s fair to surmise that in the net neutrality debate, this architect of Rome would not be inclined to side with the owners of the aqueducts.  On the contrary.  He would be cheering on the free market entrepreneurs and the content providers - the real architects of our Information Age. 

They don’t want to see the best of the Internet usurped.   They don’t want a well-positioned few to pay for premium access to the information superhighway, while the rest of us are forced onto the service road. 

I got into radio as a teenager.  I grew up with those heavy handed, archaic rules about access that Verizon - a descendant of the old phone company monopoly, by the way - once benefited from, but now mocks.  The Communications Act of 1934 made a point of noting that the airwaves were a “scarce public resource,” and therefore required broadcasters to act in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” 

Opponents of net neutrality argue that the Internet can hardly be described as scarce, that technology has made that notion obsolete.  

But imagine a handful of large private interests cornering the market on the best water, and it will dawn on you how hollow that argument rings. 

That's especially true in what we still tell our children is the land of opportunity.   We shouldn't need an ancient Roman dictator to remind us.