Chris McDonald – The Computer Utility and the First Computer-Communications Policy Debate

CITP Luncheon Series

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Date: Thursday, February 4, 2010
Time: 12:30 -1:30 pm
Location: 306 Sherrerd Hall
Food at 12:30 pm. Discussion begins at 12:45 pm. Everyone invited.

Circa 1960, engineers at MIT and elsewhere developed time-sharing computer systems, offering interactive access to multiple users at remote consoles – even in some cases allowing users to dial in over the phone network from off-campus offices, homes, or demonstration sites. This development brought computer experts to imagine the possibility a computer-communications infrastructure that could supply computer power and services across the nation, to businesses, government institutions, and even private individuals. Discussions among engineers, social scientists and lawyers about the implications of this “computer utility” concept touched on many of the major policy questions that we continue to deal with in the context of today’s Internet, from privacy to the protection of copyright. The only forum in which significant policy was enacted in this period, however, was an inquiry into computers and communications launched by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1966. The debate there, primarily involving computer companies, communications carriers, and major corporate users of computing, included issues that resonate in much more recent discussions of net neutrality.


Chris McDonald is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science program at Princeton. His dissertation examines the history and politics of computer-communications systems for the general public, from the 1960s to the 1990s. Before coming to Princeton he worked in the computer industry, and he holds computer science degrees from Rice University and Purdue University.