Remember telephone books? “The phone book” was once as ubiquitous and as essential a household item as the doorknob. Guides to all of the existing telephone numbers in one’s locality, they were published by “the phone company.”
Each telephone book was divided into two sections: The White Pages and the Yellow Pages.
The first set was printed on white paper and contained all of the residential telephone numbers in a locality; the second set was printed on yellow paper and contained all of the listings for businesses that catered to consumers.
In big cities, these directories could be quite large.
Sometimes, the White Pages and the Yellow Pages were actually two separate volumes or more.
Growing up in New York, I recall these being so large that they should have been classified as deadly weapons. Whether one needed a permit to carry them around, I can’t recall.
Much of what one would find in the Yellow Pages were specialty advertisements for consumer-related businesses.
The bigger a business was, the more ostentatious its advertisement was likely to be, and these businesses paid a lot for the privilege.
“The phone company” was, of course, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and its subsidiaries.
One might recognize them these days as AT&T, the outfit that provides various communications services to businesses, consumers and government agencies.
Originally founded in 1875 as the Bell Telephone Company, it became the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885 and went on to build a nationwide network that provided “landline” service to everyone in the United States and Canada.
In 1974, the United States Justice Department opened an antitrust case against AT&T, which ultimately led to the breakup of the company. While the case was well-grounded in law, it was a somewhat disingenuous and hypocritical act, since government collusion with the company over the previous 75 years had enabled it to create and maintain a monopoly.
In addition to paving the way for the ensuing telecom boom of later decades, the antitrust case also represented a slow death to the good old phone book.
So, how was the American Telephone and Telegraph Company able to maintain an illegal monopoly for so long, and why did consumers and the government put up with it? Well, like so many questionable conditions that have been allowed to exist throughout our history, Americans, and by extension, our government, have a troubling proclivity for tolerating problematic laws and policies when we perceive that they serve our interests. Back in the late 19th century, we went from postal mail, messengers and the Pony Express to being able to pick up a device in our homes or offices and speak to another person across town or across the country at will. We were so enamored of this that most of us didn’t give a single thought to the fact that our ostensible benefactor was operating unethically.
As the reader may have surmised at this juncture, consumers and businesses are now faced with a similar situation with tech giants like Google. These companies provided utilities that were wholeheartedly welcomed by consumers and businesses that 20 years ago wondered what direction this new “information age” might take.
Unfortunately, like AT&T in the 1900s, we’ve been so enamored of what they offered that most of us haven’t given a thought to the fact that they’ve been operating unethically.
As they did in the phone books published by “the phone company” of the 20th century, in the case of Google (for example), businesses both large and small can bolster their chances for success through the purchase of advertising. There’s a major caveat to this, however: Silicon Valley companies like Google have agendas Bell Telephone and AT&T did not have in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The monopoly on telephone service simply had to do with AT&T cornering a market. Online tech companies like Google and, as I indicated recently, social media companies like Facebook have been engaging in dedicated campaigns of social engineering. They cherry-pick commercial content and either censor or ban other content, both commercial and non-commercial.
This would be the equivalent of AT&T conveniently “losing” the phone book listings of residential and commercial interests of whom they did not approve, leaving them unpublished. While some might argue a difference in that residential and commercial customers of the past paid AT&T and its subsidiaries directly for services and listings, I would argue that users of Google’s search engine, Facebook and other companies pay for their service simply by patronizing them.
So, should the government step in and stop this in the manner in which they broke up the phone company in the 1970s? I would say no, for two reasons: One is that these tech giants have not yet effectively cultivated an environment in which no other interests can compete with them. There are other players on the board – in fact, there’s an increasing number of them; it’s just that consumers and businesses have not yet engaged them in numbers sufficient to pose a substantial threat to the offending companies.
The second reason is that our government has not yet shown a clear pattern of facilitating the behavior of these companies, although the previous administration most certainly did so. As long as this continues to be the case, market forces are likely to prevail, to the detriment of Silicon Valley’s social engineers.
Again, as I said in my previous commentary on this topic, despite their arrogance and intractability, these companies are already arousing the ire of consumers and business to an extent that if they continue on their present course, they will ultimately lose on this front in the culture war.
Article posted with permission from Erik Rush