You've Gotta Fight For Your Right (to Paaarlay)
Net Neutrality: The Most Important Freedom of Speech Issue of the Information Age?
by Roz Allen
Changemakers everywhere, take note. The first rule of thumb if you want your cause du jour to make waves? Assume the position of any self respecting marketer and come up with a memorable, recognizable brand.
Sure, adopting a capitalist approach to social awareness campaigns feels scary … maybe even downright slimy. But if motivating the public to act up is a part of your leftist-led throwdown, branding and delivering a clear message is very, very necessary.
Case in point: Net Neutrality. If you’re like most Canadians, chances are good that you’re browsing right on by it, distracted by the shiny packaging of social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. But believe me, dear reader, this no-name brand sitting on the bottom shelf of the Internet aisles could end up being the biggest free speech issue of the information age.
Let’s hear the elevator pitch.
“Net Neutrality prevents Internet providers from blocking, speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination.” – Saveournet.ca.
OK. So now that we’ve bypassed the nebulous Net Neutrality branding and gotten down to the dirty gist — it seems like a great idea right? Preventing ISP’s from controlling the content they serve up?
But let’s just play devil’s advocate for a second.
Isn’t the Internet, by its very nature, democratic? Why should I buy in? Don’t I, like, have that already?
Ummm, no. According to University of Ottawa professor and leading cause salesman Michael Geist, not only do we not have net neutrality in Canada, the telco companies that keep the Internet’s doors open are leading the charge to ensure this is one product that never makes it to market.
Geist: “Telcos become the gatekeepers to what we see/how fast we see it. That is where there is a lack of competition and real dangers from prioritizing content and violating the principles of net neutrality.”
Uh-oh. Looks like we’re going to have to read the ingredients on this can of whoop ass.
In May of 2008, a scrappy little group called the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) asked the CRTC for an urgent cease and desist order. Seems Bell, the mega-telco that the CAIP rents its pipes from had been engaging in a little bandwidth throttling — slowing the speeds of subscribers who regularly use P2P clients like BitTorrent.
Now at first blush, knocking back the bandwidth of a few consumers who are trying to illegally download the latest episode of Lost — so that the rest of their neighbours can happily surf Facebook — may not seem like a big deal. But according to Search Engine’s Jesse Brown, the issue of bandwidth throttling, or ‘traffic shaping’ as its otherwise known, has a much more ominous undertone.
“A two-tiered network in which administrators pick and choose what content moves at what speed based on business relationships is not, by definition, the Internet. We’d be creating some weird new hierarchical corporate network, incompatible with the rest of the world.“
OK. Now we’re getting somewhere.
The two-tiered network Jesse speaks of is the new net order that Canada’s big telcos have been fighting the CRTC to establish. Under the guise of ‘keeping congestion down,’ Bell, Rogers and Telus have claimed that they need to be able to slow user traffic and inspect what kinds of content we’re downloading, for the greater good of Internet subscribers everywhere.
And sure, that makes good business sense. Keep the pipes clear for folks who are using the net legally, slow ‘em down for the ones who aren’t.
But look a little closer and you’ll see it’s a classic case of painting an issue with too broad a brush.
Because what creating a policy that allows telecom giants to control our public pipes really does is pave the way for the next generation of broadcasters — the telcos — to charge premium fees for higher speeds and to make sure that corporate-friendly client content reaches your screen long before your neighbour’s YouTube videos do.
“I’m old enough to remember when television first hit. I was living in Australia, and I remember the euphoria that happened, how my high school teachers were telling us… ‘television is going to change everything, turn the world into a global village, give communities the power to spread information, be the saviour that finally gets us all being wise, tuned in, moving forward to create a utopia on this planet.’ They were saying television was going to do all those things that people caught up in the Internet bubble are saying now.”
Those are the wise and wondrous words of consummate culture jammer, Kalle Lasn. And right now you may be wondering what the hell television has to do with a discussion on net neutrality. Read on.
“But by the time I was 25, 10 years after television came, it was starting to be infested by corporate advertising. Television turned into mass merchandising tool for corporations. It was no longer a fair distribution of information.”
Hmmm. Infested by corporate advertising. Fair distribution of information. This seems to be ringing some bells.
Lasn has long been at the forefront of fighting for freedom of speech in the broadcast age. A little over fifteen years ago he launched a lawsuit against big corporate media, starting the fight to air his 30 second anti-ads right alongside all those professionally polished pieces the agencies put up in primetime.
He lost. And he lost. And he lost again.
And 15 years and nearly $200,000 later, he’s preparing for this third round against Canada’s big broadcasters, this time spurred on by the B.C. Court of Appeal, who recently issued a ruling that allows Adbusters Media Foundation to pursue legal action against the CBC and CanWest Global for refusing to screen its anti-consumerist television ads.
Lasn: “TV turned us into a bunch of consumers, creating recession with consumption. So in a totally different way, the same kind of story path can happen with the Internet. It already is happening. The pluses are more enticing, I can start my own blog and suddenly have a big voice. But along with those democratic developments, at the same time corporations are able to own the Facebooks, and figure out one’s buying habits in much more clandestine ways. The ante has been upped, the pluses are still there, but we’re going down the dark side of the Internet.”
And so, the battle for free speech in the information age rears its head and rages on.
In Lasn’s case, he’s been forced to fight the battle for free speech moving from the end of the story backward. By the time he and his ads for “Buy Nothing Day” came along, the decisions about how television would be regulated, who would control the airwaves — and in which way — had already been decided.
The good news is, we’re living through the Wild West frontier days of the Internet. And, whether you know it or not, we all have a horse in this race. As Jesse Brown says, “We’re all content providers now, and these decisions affect everyone … It’s not up to [the corporations] to stop pushing for a two-tiered Internet, it’s up to us, and our elected officials, to stop them.”
The CRTC is set to hold another public hearing on July 6 of this year. So pull yourself away from the glossy plastic packaging of your favourite social network and get out there. Raise your voice.
We still have the power to make sure that when it comes to free speech on the Canadian Interweb, the artists and producers — in short order, we, the people — win out.
Roz Allen is a Toronto-based freelance troublemaker. Find her online at www.therozblog.com.