The terms “common carriage” and “common carrier” have been mentioned in recent years in regard to the Internet and Net Neutrality, but they’re not at all new. In fact, there were versions of common carriage rules as far back as the Roman Empire. In its original meanings, “common carrier” referred to anyone who offers a service to the general public.
It applied especially to transportation, but also to bakers, brewers, cab drivers, innkeepers, millers, smiths, surgeons and even tailors. That is, if someone says they provide goods or transportation for all paying customers, the customers have a right to expect good service or quality at a fair price – and a price that’s the same as every other customer pays. Further, customers have the right to expect that common carriers will take good care of the goods they’re shipping. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the term narrowed to focus mainly on transportation, but the general principles still applied in other areas.
“Common carrier” began to be applied to electronic communication in the 19th century with the invention of the telegraph. Telegraph was a true revolution in communication: information could be transported very quickly, almost instantly, from one location to another without carrying a written or printed version of the message. Because of the high cost of stringing wires along utility poles, telegraph companies were mainly limited to just one: Western Union.
Newspapers, highly dependent on receiving important news from elsewhere, were quick to take advantage of the new communication system. In particular, they realized that it was not necessary for each newspaper to have their own reporters on site in important but distant locations. Instead they could use the output of reporters hired by companies that distributed their articles and reports to subscribing newspapers. Because those articles were transmitted to subscribers by telegraph wire, those news distributing companies became known as “wire services.” Although there were others, like Reuters and later United Press International (UPI), the best known and most influential wire service was Associated Press (AP.) And that’s where things got interesting.
In a 1998 book called “The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers,” journalist Tom Standage describes Associated Press became the most powerful and influential wire service for a reason: they and Western Union agreed to a deal in which AP would publish stories and support legislation that were favorable to the telegraph service. In particular, Western Union wanted to continue the awarding of land by the government to railroads, along which telegraph wires would be strung. In return, Western Union would give favorable rates to AP and would refuse to provide any service to a potential or real competitor to AP. In short, they colluded to control the flow of information to newspapers and the public.
It wasn’t until 1910 that Congress clearly defined both the telephone and telegraph as common carriers and thereby forced Western Union to provide its services to all comers, at a fair and equal price. But by then, a new, “disruptive” technology appeared that helped level the playing field. Marconi’s wireless telegraph, better known as “radio,” provided a communication system that bypassed and made unnecessary Western Union’s telegraph wires. Still, it took until 1945 for the Supreme Court, in Associated Press v. United States, to say that the AP had been violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by prohibiting member newspapers from selling or providing news to nonmember organizations as well as making it very difficult for nonmember newspapers to join the AP.
The First Amendment of the Constitution stipulates: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Yet here we are once again, facing a situation in which the freedom of speech and of the press may be limited by legislation and government rulings that allow communications service providers to set their own rules for pricing. Instead of progress, we’re moving ourselves backwards in history to a time when the value of information was determined by those with deep enough pockets to buy that privilege. The demise of Net Neutrality will return us to the control of information by those who seek to overturn centuries of common carriage principles.
Let me say something about why I’m writing these articles. When I was teaching Information Systems Technology at Midlands Tech, we were mandated to teach not only digital technology, but also its social impact and implications. As I told my students, “I can teach you ones and zeroes and how computers work, but I need to teach you how they impact your life and society as well.” A major part of understanding information technology’s impact is understanding its history and context, and how and why things got the way they are. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In order for citizens to make appropriate decisions about the governance of their society, they need to have the knowledge necessary to make those decisions. It’s my fervent hope that these articles do just that.
John Sukovich is a Newberry County resident and a retired professor of business and other IT courses from Midlands Technical College.