In the domain of telecom policy, it seems like a series of bad ideas (re)arise alongside major innovations in communications systems and technologies. In this post, I want to turn to the telegraph to shed light on issues of communication bandwidth, security and privacy that are being (re)addressed by regulators around the world as they grapple with the Internet. I’ll speak to the legacy of data retention in analogue and digital communicative infrastructures, congestion management, protocol development, and encryption policies to demonstrate how these issues have arisen in the past, and conclude by suggesting a few precautionary notes about the future of the Internet. I do want to acknowledge, before getting into the meat of this post, that while the telegraph can be usefully identified as a precursor to the digital Internet because of the strong analogies between the two technological systems it did use different technological scaffolding. Thus, lessons that are drawn are based on the analogical similarities, rather than technical homogeneity between the systems.
The telegraph took years to develop. Standardization was a particular issues, perhaps best epitomized by the French having an early telegraph system of (effectively) high-tech signal towers, whereas other nations struggled to develop interoperable cross-continental electrically-based systems. Following the French communication innovation (which was largely used to coordinate military endeavours), inventors in other nations such as Britain and the United States spent considerable amounts of time learning how to send electrical pulses along various kinds of cables to communicate information at high speed across vast distances.