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 sameā€”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)