Damming the Open Stream: Net Neutrality vs Corporate Greed
Sir Francis Bacon once wrote scientia potentia est: "knowledge is power." Undoubtedly a large part of our common knowledge today is broadcast and downloaded by users of the internet and the World Wide Web. When equipped with our computers and ever-expanding artillery of wireless devices, we have access to an uninterrupted stream of data 24/7; however, this relatively unrestricted path to digital enlightenment may soon be a repressed trickle, if anything at all.
When it first started, the basic decentralized structure of the Internet made it an open and democratic model of communication. It was administered globally through institutions like universities and scientific research facilities, transcending national borders and overcoming any proprietary brand or commercialized purpose. Its creators always intended it to be equal-access for everyone; anyone with a modem and an ordinary landline could dial into bulletin board systems, email servers, or their college LAN and freely access information. The ethos behind the design principle of the original "network of networks," and its creators, made it resistant to corporate and commercial interests--a truly global, neutral medium for communication. Hence, "net neutrality."
But this wouldn't last for long. A tool as powerful as the Internet would soon be invaded, colonized, and commoditized just like any other territory containing precious resources. Starting with the dot-com boom in the mid 90s, the world has witnessed the increased commoditization of the online sphere and the co-opting of autonomy for monetary gain. The basic free-to-use structure of the internet is changing, and quicker than expected, indicating the end of hopes for this democratized and globally accessible communications technology. Right now the internet is, for the most part, a neutral global property. You could compare it to a river or stream of data, with information flowing uninhibited from point-to-point. This non-discriminatory service enables people to access any website, publish news, share files, and basically communicate freely. Neutrality ensures that Internet Service Providers (ISPs,) cannot block certain sites or regulate bandwidth speed based on content, source, ownership or destination. This kind of free and open way of sharing information promotes innovation in all fields, fosters increased participation in democracy, and protects freedom of speech. The non-proprietary qualities of the internet also make it immune to monopoly by electronics corporations and protects consumer freedom to browse using any computer, browser, or service they want.
What ISPs and telecommunications companies want to do is, in effect, dam or control the flow of information, deciding what data you can send/receive, where you can send to or receive from, and how fast that stream will flow. This will be built into a multi-tiered cost system, where you pay significantly more for access to the "fast stream" or settle for slow loading pages, restricted content, and compromised security. Perhaps only the major technology companies and telecommunications elite will have access to this fast lane, resulting in a stratified hierarchy of internet users.
So why would these corporations want to do this? Isn't the ISPs job to provide the service and not choose whose data is more important? The debate is split: between those protectionists who think the internet stands for something fundamentally important to culture and society; and companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner who operate with a vastly different mindset and business model, which they are trying to impose on the online community. The proposed closed-net system would be more centralized with the ISPs essentially acting as "gatekeepers," controlling the access and distribution of content, or "traffic-shaping" as some delicately put it.
One of the most interesting opponents of net neutrality is the Communications Workers of America (CWA) a union that represents 700,000 media and telecommunications industry workers. When the bi-partisan Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007 was being considered in the US Senate, CWA President Larry Cohen wrote to the House Judiciary Committee claiming that if net neutrality is protected, "[I]nvestment in the physical infrastructure necessary to provide high-speed Internet would slow down, the U.S. will fall even further behind the rest of the world, and our rural and low-income populations will wait even longer to enter the digital age." Telecomm companies cite substandard stats for broadband penetration and speed in the US market as their main motivator, but it seems more likely that they are looking to recoup the billions of dollars poured into laying millions of meters of optic fiber during the mid-90s internet boom. And all that cable needs infrastructure development and implementation, as well as an audience to pay for it! They would tax content providers, essentially getting paid twice and penalizing those who need more bandwidth in order to contribute to the online sphere, even in a noncommercial capacity.
Different dominant telecom companies also have vested interests in getting you to use their proprietary brand of electronics, internet phone services, applications, browsers, search engines etc., while blocking their competitors from the marketplace. The deregulation of the economic sphere is now spilling into the cybersphere with neoliberal measures to obtain control of this resource being implemented as we speak. These include concentrated ownership in a very few dominant telecommunications firms, the commercial exploitation and manipulation of the media, and the elimination and degradation of legal barriers placed around net neutrality. Multi-billion dollar telecommunications cartels are aggressively lobbying US Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to kill net neutrality.
Telecom companies are also losing money on their traditional niche markets and need to diversify into new profit streams to compensate. Basically, they want to create a multi-tiered system of access in order to charge more for certain services and bandwidth. While service-level pricing has been said to be non-threatening to net neutrality, there is no guarantee that users will have access to fairly-priced services and the same online mobility that is part of the current structure of the internet. It is the maintenance of the "many-to-many, end-to-end" traffic flow that is essential for the integrity of the internet to endure.
The internet, as we know it today, is the final frontier of global media development. And it's in trouble. How do we save the best part of the Internet--its accessibility, openness and democratic nature--without preventing the expansion of infrastructure and services in the future? The net neutrality debate is not a question of either/or; in the end, the winning solution will be a compromise reached by both sides in the debate that evolves over time, with careful checks and balances to ensure sustainability and the continued freedom of users. In the meantime, here's what you can do:
- Sign the petition.
- Visit this video and post it wherever you can on the net: http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=cWt0XUocViE
- Write a letter to your representative in government and tell them you want to protect net neutrality.
- Send this article to 3 or 4 people, post it to your blog, write your economics homework on the back of it and hand it in (or not), and spread the world.
Cook, Brian. "Not Neutrality: Why are the Communications Workers of America opting out of the Save the Internet coalition?" In These Times. March 26, 2007. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3081/not_neutrality/
Zandberg, Bryan. "Canada Sleeps Through War to 'Save the Internet'." The Tyee. Jan 17, 2007. http://thetyee.ca/Mediacheck/2007/01/17/NetNeutrality/