How Robber Barons hijacked the "Victorian Internet"  

Posted by Big Gav in

Ars Technica has a look at how an earlier communications revolution was monopolised - How Robber Barons hijacked the "Victorian Internet".

It was 1879, and investor Charles A. Sumner sat at his desk, frustration pouring onto the page through his ink pen. Sumner, business partner to the radical economist and journalist Henry George, was finishing the concluding passages of a book about what had happened to the telegraph, or the Victorian Internet, as one historian calls it.

"This glorious invention was vouchsafed to mankind," he wrote, "that we might salute and converse with one another respectively stationed at remote and isolated points for a nominal sum."

But instead, he continued, "A wicked monopoly has seized hold of this beneficent capacity and design, and made it tributary, by exorbitant tariffs, to a most miserly and despicable greed."

It's a largely forgotten story, but one that still has relevance today. If you follow debates about broadband policy, you know that there are two perspectives perennially at war with each other. One seeks some regulation of the dominant industries and service providers of our time. The other seeks carte blanche for the private sector to do as it sees fit. Nowhere does the latter camp press this case harder than when it comes to network neutrality on the Internet, and appeals to the Founding Fathers aren't unknown. ...

Three years before Sumner wrote his lament, the country was wracked by the most convulsive presidential election since the outbreak of the Civil War: Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York versus Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. The Republican party had split between loyalists to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant and those appalled by its corruption. In truth, the resurgent Democrats were no better when it came to civic virtue, but they lured some Republicans away with Tilden, who famously battled bribery and graft as governor of New York.

When, on that November night in 1876, the popular results indicated a narrow majority for the reform candidate, many assumed the first Democratic victory in two decades. But not so at one of the Associated Press's most prestigious affiliates, the ardently pro-Republican New York Times. When prominent Democrats nervously contacted the Times asking for an update on the results, its managing editor John Reid realized that the election was still in doubt. He contacted top Republican party officials and had them spread the word via telegram—the electoral college votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were still in play.

It was easy for these men to access the telegraph system, because its main operator, Western Union, was also militantly pro-Republican. During the long controversy in Congress over who actually won the districts in the disputed election of 1876, Western Union secretly siphoned to AP's general agent Henry Nash Smith the telegraph correspondence of key Democrats during the struggle. Smith, in turn, relayed this intelligence to the Hayes camp with instructions on how to proceed. On top of that, AP constantly published propaganda supporting the Republican side of the story. Meanwhile, Western Union insisted that it kept "all messages whatsoever . . . strictly private and confidential."


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