Technology × Freedom

Is Minitel a Case Study for Net Neutrality? Not Quite.

June 20, 2017 invisiblehand

The Atlantic has published a curious love letter of sorts to the French state-run "internet" of the 1980s known as Minitel. A basic introduction:

Minitel was a computer terminal. It housed a screen, a keyboard, and a modem—but not a microprocessor. Instead of computing on its own, Minitel connected to remote services via uplink, like a 1960s mainframe or a modern Google Chromebook. Terminals were given out, for free, to every French telephone subscriber by the state (which also ran the phone company).

Minitel was a huge success. With free terminals at home or work, people in France could connect to more than 25,000 online services long before the world wide web had even been invented. Many services of the dotcom-and-app eras had precursors in 1980s France. With a Minitel, one could read the news, engage in multi-player interactive gaming, grocery shop for same-day delivery, submit natural language requests like “reserve theater tickets in Paris,” purchase said tickets using a credit card, remotely control thermostats and other home appliances, manage a bank account, chat, and date.

Why is The Atlantic's Julien Mailland so enamored of this now-defunct technology? Because it was "open," of course. Since it was run by the government, all content and services were treated equally. We can all take a lesson from this, Mailland insists:

…Minitel’s lessons live on, and with new relevance. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order made network neutrality law in 2015. But this year, it has come under attack by both cable internet operators and the current FCC chairman. The American implementation of a network derived from Minitel [known as 101 Online] was done by private industry alone. It failed in part because its usage was not regulated by the government. For this reason, it offers a view from the past on why the FCC’s move today might be misguided. It turns out that regulated networks might offer better market opportunities.

But was Minitel really a "huge success"? It helps to have some context, courtesy of Time:

In a nation that had a mere 5 million telephones in the mid-’70s — and where enduring the long wait to have a line installed was no guarantee it would actually work — the Minitel was an iconic part of France’s successful transformation from an underdeveloped communications and information-technology country into a cutting-edge innovator. To speed up that evolution, France Telecom handed out millions of Minitel terminals to businesses and households for free to use over an upgraded and expanded telephonic grid.

France had enjoyed the fruits of a nationalized telecommunications service since 1889, fruits such as long installation wait lists and shoddy service. More than eight decades of this government-run telecom service had left France technologically backwards. To improve its PR, France Telecom created Minitel (on the taxpayer's dime) and gave away millions of computers "for free" (again, on the taxpayer's dime). France still had horrible phone service, but nevermind that, they now had instant access to sex chat rooms where men could talk dirty to other men posing as women. I'm sure the droves of social conservatives out in France's vast countrysides loved having their tax dollars go to such a worthy cause.

Minitel was a "success" because it used taxes to provide a service half the country didn't want, essentially sticking a novelty cherry on top of the rotting cake of government-run telecom service. The sheen of this cherry rubbed off fast, as the rest of the world leapfrogged right over France a mere 10 years later with the advent of the privately-run, unregulated World Wide Web.

But rather than make the obvious comparison between Minitel and today's web, Mailland sidesteps the issue by comparing Minitel to 101 Online - Silicon Valley's early attempt at adopting Minitel. Mailland writes:

Individuals and companies couldn’t plug into the [101 Online] network and sell their content, goods, and services like their French counterparts had done, and as dotcom startups would soon do on the web [emphasis added]. Instead, they had to travel to 101 Online’s office in downtown San Francisco, hand a floppy to an operator, and wait for its content to be converted to 101 Online’s proprietary format and uploaded to the company’s server.

101 Online failed because of poor entrepreneurship and a bad business model, which the free market swiftly killed in favor of a better model, as Mailland himself notes. After meandering through this obscure history of failed internet prototypes, Mailland fails to tie it back to the question of an open internet. What Minitel or 101 Online has to do with net neutrality rules is anyone's guess.

What can we learn from articles like this one? Simply this: Advocates of net neutrality have to actively ignore obvious facts and rely on obscure examples to justify their position. To everyone else, the superiority of the private sector over the public sector in meeting people's needs is obvious, and it requires no special contortions of evidence or logic.