It’s not a fun time to be a web surfer. What am I saying? We can find endless fun in philosophical debates, learning about the world and its history, and watching videos of cats riding on roombas. But all along there’s been a nagging undercurrent polluting our joy and entertainment. Something invasive and brutish and leading somewhere none of us want to go. Surveillance by our wise masters has stepped up in recent years, clearly as a result of wanting to be more Orwellian than China. If you can’t beat them on GDP, beat them on web surveillance! But people have hit back, often in lovely, entrepreneurial, value-adding ways. And this isn’t the first time! Astonishingly there was a time long ago when a grubby upstart looked Goliath in the eyes, and won.

Net neutrality advocates are pushing for commercial interests to take a back seat to equality of access to the internet, and have been notionally defeated in the last year. Not a moment too soon, if we ever want businesses like Netflix to keep serving up delicious TV on the internet we need ISP’s to be able to charge fees proportionate to use or high enough that they can make a profit by not doing so. At the moment I suspect heavy regulation in the United States has resulted in slavish devotion to the latter of those methods by American ISP’s. But one interesting thing about the movement is that some among them cited a little-remembered but delightful piece of American entrepreneurial history.

Telephony and telegraphy in America was the domain of government-sponsored monopolies, eventually culminating in one monopoly to rule them all, AT&T. Early phones sucked. Their sound capture wasn’t great to begin with and the speaker’s voice at the sending end was loud enough to be heard by anyone nearby. As for solutions to this, the Museum of Radio and Electricity show us the beast in question, the Hush-A-Phone! A simple rectangular attachment for those old-school candlestick phones in the 20’s, it permitted the speaker to be understood clearly by the person at the other end with the receiver to their ear, but by nobody else at the sending end. Privacy! At last!

From 1922 Hush-A-Phones were sold in large quantities, until thousands of phone users in Manhattan alone had one to facilitate clear, private phone conversations. Naturally, as time went by, and the regional phone monopolies became AT&T, their ire was turned toward this upstart company. Why? Because AT&T made the phones themselves and didn’t want any modifications made to them after installation! As of the postwar era, when nobody was using candlestick phones anymore, Hush-A-Phone moved fast and built privacy adaptors for the new receivers. Sign up to AT&T, then get a Hush-A-Phone, plug it into the phone and you’re up up and away! If only it were so simple.

AT&T, being a legally enforced monopoly, had the FCC in its pocket and had managed to get a regime banning the addition of foreign devices to AT&T phones. This egregious monopolistic practice was largely uncontested because Hush-A-Phone simply advertised and sold its devices too narrowly – this was not by design – t be noticed in this pre-internet era. Then an AT&T employee caught sight of a Hush-A-Phone in a shop window. Cue excrement hitting fans. The legal battle lasted almost a decade, with Hush-A-Phone continually disputing the claim, made by AT&T’s legal team, that the device would somehow ruin the phone network. Our plucky little privacy advocates got their hearing in 1956, and in Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States the decision finally came down in favour of David, presumably to the chagrin of the government lapdogs at AT&T.

The way into the telecoms market was now, if not entirely open, certainly no longer closed, and MCI followed, also facing a long battle against the monopolists, but by the time they were in business and competing against AT&T, the old monopoly was being sized up by the US Government for dismemberment and reconstitution as no less than 7 separate telecoms businesses. How ironic that a government monopoly ended in an antitrust court case. In practice AT&T continued to exist, so actually there were 8 successors. It limped along through bad decision after bad decision until being bought by one of those 7 previous subsidiaries, Southwestern Bell.

So the skinny is that the plucky entrepreneurs succeeded where so many had previously failed – you don’t have to look far to find a Lysander Spooner out there who faces down a monopoly and fails. And even if the Hush-A-Phone company is no longer with us, and the device relegated to history, its significance in the relative opening up of the US telecoms market is a lasting legacy, and one that is still being written even as net neutrality is challenged on the sound commercial grounds that it pointlessly hamstrings innovators from changing up the ISP business the way they already have media distribution, accessibility of knowledge, and the consumption patterns of all of us who consume entertainment or education online.

It’s time for a recognition of the significance of entrepreneurship in fighting tyranny of any stripe, political, social or commercial. Today’s Hush-A-Phones are numerous and rowdy, and they’re advancing constantly; we can pay for peer-to-peer cab journeys, stays in houses and hotels, and the use of each other’s vehicles and appliances, using peer-to-peer digital currencies entirely over the internet. All of this is at our fingertips right now, like a vision of universal peace, virtue and helpfulness. Let us continue, in whatever way each of us can, to make a freer, more peer-to-peer world, and let us all enjoy the peace and prosperity that results.