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Jun 09 2006

Saving the internet: The importance of net neutrality

[UPDATE: Read this Democracy Now transcript for clarifications on the net neutrality issue.]

After singing the praises of the internet in the last three posts, it is now time to sound the alarm. There are serious threats underway to undermine the very features of the internet that have made it the democratizing force it has been so far, and these efforts should be resisted strongly. Last night, the House of Representatives voted down (268-152) an amendment that would have placed into law a provision that would ensure something called ‘net neutrality.’ The issue now goes before the Senate. Founders of the web like Tim Berners-Lee argue that we could be entering a ‘dark period’ in which a few suppliers would be able to determine what users could do and see on the web.

Here’s the issue. Currently, you (the end user) can use any browser you like and go to any site that you want and the speed and ease with which you can access them is largely determined by the content creators and consumers: i.e., the server at the other end and your own computer. The general features of the connecting medium (whether cable, phone line, or wireless) play a neutral role in this process. Think of the medium like the role that roads play in transport. Everyone can use them equally, although each user may use a different kind of vehicle.

But the big telecommunication companies (telcos) that own that connecting medium (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth) are arguing that since they are the ones who own that infrastructure, they should be able to use that control to generate additional revenue by providing different levels of service (affecting speed and quality) depending on how much people pay. It is as if all roads become toll roads and how much access you get to them, how quickly you could get on them, and how fast you can go on them is determined by how much you pay the road owners.

As the Washington Post reported on December 1, 2005:

A senior telecommunications executive said yesterday that Internet service providers should be allowed to strike deals to give certain Web sites or services priority in reaching computer users, a controversial system that would significantly change how the Internet operates.

William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.

Or, Smith said, his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth’s offering.

This has huge ramifications for the internet, as the website SaveTheInternet.com points out. Here’s a sample of the threats (more complete list here):

Google users – Another search engine could pay dominant Internet providers like AT&T to guarantee the competing search engine opens faster than Google on your computer.
Ipod listeners -A company like Comcast could slow access to iTunes, steering you to a higher-priced music service that it owned.
Political groups – Political organizing could be slowed by a handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups to pay “protection money” for their websites and online features to work correctly.
Online purchasers – Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices – distorting your choice as a consumer.
Bloggers – Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips – silencing citizen journalists and putting more power in the hands of a few corporate-owned media outlets.

The telcos are using their money (and correspondingly huge lobbying muscle) to try and get legislation through Congress to enable them to do this, and are being fought by grassroots groups. It is speculated that one reason that phone companies so easily (and secretly) gave phone records over to the government in its NSA phone monitoring program was because they were trying to curry favor with the administration concerning this legislation, hoping for this big payoff in return.

This is an important issue and could determine whether the internet remains an egalitarian force or goes down the road of big corporation control that way that newspapers, radio and TV did. In the early days of each of those media forms, it was relatively easy for people to enter into it. It did not cost a lot of money to start a newspaper or radio station, although TVs were more expensive. But then big companies aided by a friendly Congress started dominating the field and nowadays one has to have enormous wealth to start up. In the case of radio and TV, the government has colluded with the big companies by taking the public airways (the broadcast spectrum) and giving it away free to private companies to make exorbitant profits. If you or I were to start a radio and TV station and broadcast it over the public airways, we would be prosecuted.

Newspapers, radio, and TV have ceased to be representative of the interests of ordinary people because they are not owned by them. They now represent the interests of their owners and shareholders. It is the internet, still an embryo medium, that still has the ease of entry to make it a democratizing force because, at least in principle, anyone can gain access to it to spread ideas. It is this that is threatened by the attacks on net neutrality. History has shown that once we let the big companies muscle in and dominate a media system, we cannot get it back.

Considering how much we all use the internet, this issue has been surprisingly below the radar. People seem to assume that the internet will always be the way it is now. But just as the democratic aspects of the internet were not an accident but deliberately designed to be so by its pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee, keeping it that way will also require deliberate efforts by us. We cannot take it for granted.

Case has many tech-savvy people who have a much better idea of the implications of surrendering net neutrality to the big telcos. Lev Gonick, Case’s Vice President for Information Technology as early as last year had a very detailed and informative post on this topic. We need to build more awareness on this important issue. Perhaps we should have a concerted effort, with more bloggers expressing their views on this issue.

For more information on this topic, see the very helpful FAQ put out by the Save The Internet coalition.

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