Thursday, 15 January 2015

jail-break or walled-garden

Though today’s conversation has adopted such colourfully metaphoric language, the same problems of communication dominated by a few industry giants, privacy and consumer-protection have a history, lively and just as shameful and grasping, that goes back at least to the advent of telephony and probably reaches much further back with the implements, tried and true, of blacklisting, censorship and charters. Before the United States recognised and rejected the monopoly that Bell conglomerate had on the public’s telephone lines, people and businesses did not purchase their telephones but rather rented units from Bell with a monthly subscription—pretty much the same situation we have today, being untethered physically but still locked into contracts that are bundled with gadgets and accessories tied to the service.

A pair of cases, first lodged against municipalities that used a central dispatch to communicate with police vehicles, fire truck and ambulances, and more irking to the phone company, to summon taxi cabs, via the Carterphone that allowed radio-messages to be delivered to cars by piggy-backing on existing land-lines, and then against the manufacturers of a mouth piece called the Hush-a-Phone, which actually did improve upon the standard-issue receivers’ design and made the callers’ conversation clear and made calls more private as claimed (presumably as people need not shout at one another to be heard). The courts rule that such innovations were the prerogative of end-users to purchase and enhance their calls, such as they did not interfere with the rest of the traffic. These precedential decisions eventual not only contributed to the statutory break up of Ma Bell (a move that was apparently never forgot and has reformed with a vengeance in the form of closely connected cartels and the same paucity of choice) but also other inventions that were allowed to infringe on that once tightly controlled territory, like fax machines, modems and the internet.