How Robber Barons hijacked the “Victorian Internet”

In many ways this story is far field from our contemporary debates about network management, file sharing, and the perils of protocol discrimination. But the main questions seem to remain the same—to what degree will we let Western Union then and ISPs now pick winners and losers on our communications backbone? And when do government regulations grow so onerous that they discourage network investment and innovation?

These are tough questions, but the horrific problems of the “Victorian Internet” suggest that government overreach isn’t the only thing to fear. In 1876, laissez-faire “freedom for all” meant (in practice) the freedom for Henry Nash Smith to read your telegrams if he didn’t like who you supported for President. It meant freedom for Associated Press to block criticism of Western Union, and even to put potential critics and competitors out of business. And it meant freedom for a scoundrel to hijack the system at his leisure.

Sure enough, the technologies and debates are different. Still, one wonders what Charles A. Sumner would say today if told that net neutrality is a “solution to a problem that hasn’t happened yet.”

Ars Technica: How Robber Barons hijacked the “Victorian Internet”

(via Social Physicist)


  1. Tilden, in fact, was the legitimately elected president in 1876. A recount was called and, during the interim, the Florida votes were purchased and Hayes was given the election. If that hadn’t worked, Grant had been prepared to take over by military coup.

  2. Now is a good time to establish lines of electronic communication that are not entirely (if at all) reliant on the Internet as it currently exists. Hand delivery of a stack of media is still one of my favorites. At a certain point it the best bit-per-second value known, it has certain privacy features that can’t be beat and it requires very little technical know-how or fancy equipment or money. For all the gnostic freakout of The Matrix, the scene where a disreputable character knocks on Mr. Anderson’s door and passes him a data disc might be the most prophetic.

    Learning about cryptography, fidonet and the postal system won’t do anyone any harm. Nothing beats trusted person-to-person connections established in many only-partially overlapping social / professional circles.

  3. “Learning about cryptography, fidonet and the postal system won’t do anyone any harm.”

    And packet radio:

  4. To clarify, I encourage people to learn about fidonet as a model and not necessarily to start using fidonet. Here’s why…

    “I’d been using BBSs since 1976 or so, 300 baud accoustic coupler type, rotary-dialing Chicago busy signals, but in 1984 I wrote my own, called Fido, and shortly thereafter a thing called FidoNet, a store-and-foreward emailing and file-transmission system that was (1) the first such thing, ever; (2) the largest privately-owned computer network in the world; (3) a very strange, complicated, very large social organism, a terror-toma partially/intentionally of my creation. It still lives on, shockingly, today, and still thrives in places where people have no money and terrible telephone systems. […] FidoNet became an explicit social project for me starting in 1985. And more radically so in the years that followed; by 1986 I started applying anarchist principles — local, self-organizing, complete lack of intrinsic heirarchy, the ability to communicate utterly independent of others permission or goodwill — but not soon enough. (A little too late to fix some inherent flaws; nodelist fragment distribution should have been built-in, and the REGION business that turned into a monstrous heirarchy should have been killed off quick). Driven by more or less the same forces that drove (popular access to) the internet years later, FidoNet grew at an insane rate; two computers in spring 1984, 160 that fall, 32,000 by the early 1990’s. (Consider that each BBS computer had ten to a few hundred users each.) But many of the problems should have been obvious. I didn’t learn some of it until well after the fact.”

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