The importance of an open, public Internet

by Garlin Gilchrist II, NW Progressive Institute/Superspade
[from podcast transcript]

One of the most pressing technology issues that we face today is that of Network Neutrality.

First, a definition. Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu best defines Net Neutrality as “a network design principle whose premise is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally.” What this essentially means is that everything available on the public Internet should be equally available and accessible to everyone with an Internet connection.

Advocates of Net Neutrality traditionally argue that because the public Internet is a public good that is “owned” by no one, access to it should be non-discriminatory.

Constructing a logical reason why there should be discrimination in Internet access is, difficult, to say the least. However, in order to better communicate why Net Neutrality must be preserved, a reframing of the discussion is necessary. In order to make our position more effective and more understandable to the public at large, we must talk about Net Neutrality as an issue of consolidation, discrimination, and control.

Pew Research has published that half of Americans view the FCC’s decisions to relax caps on how many newspapers and TV stations a media corporation can own in local a market as bad for America. People understand that consolidation of media outlets leads to echo chambers of strategically designed and distributed propaganda. The media, which could potentially be a platform for diversity in its purest form, is with few exceptions fast becoming a bastion for not only anti-diversity messages but anti-progressive messages as well.

The term Net Neutrality, while elegant and accurate, is not something that’s easily understood by everyone. By reframing Net Neutrality as a fight against efforts to consolidate control over what web sites people can view and discriminate against consumers who are not subscribers to a particular “tier” of service, we put it into terms that are more easily digestible. “Neutral networks” sounds like a buzz word; consolidation and discrimination sound like things to fight against.

What are the opponents of Net Neutrality trying to consolidate? Access to the Internet. In their words, they’d like to “use price descrimination to achieve economic efficiency in the Internet access model.” No matter how much lipstick the lizard wears, it’s still ugly. They want to exacerbate the gap between technology haves and have-nots by creating a third category: have-worses. The have-worses are the people who would be priced out of access to certains areas of the Internet reserved for “upper-class” customers. The have-worses are the small business owners who could potentially have their web sites made inaccessible because they do not agree with the politics of those controlling Internet access. The have-worses are the free-thinking, forwared-looking people who would no longer be able to use the Internet as a source for diverse viewpoints. Consolidation of Internet access channels is bad, bad, bad, just like consolidation of media ownership is bad.

The Internet was itnended to be a large area with subdivided spaces between which web browsers could move freely. Every subdivision is equally accessible. The Internet was not designed to be “walled garden.” A “walled garden” locks off certain areas to certain people, both implicitly and explicitly. This is not a website that wants you to join and login to participate; it’s the blocking off of an entire section of the Internet. It’s the digital equivalent of “not being able to go to the other side of the tracks because that’s where the rich people live.” Companies such as BellSouth, AT&T, Verizon, and AOL Time Warner have stated intentions price people out of certain portions of the Internet. These intentions directly conflict with the Internet’s purposefully and intentially designed open model of communication. Ironically, these intentions also directly conflict with Internet access business models, as AOL knows better than most. They found this out the hard way when they phased out their “walled garden” model in 2006.

The Internet, like any democratic system, is made better by free and equal participation. One only needs to look at three of the web’s most popular destinations as examples: MySpace, YouTube and Wikipedia. These sites are made more interesting with every piece of user-contributed content that is added to them. Every comment, every video, every picture makes these sites more desirable. If only “top-tier” consumers were able to access these sites or contribute to them, not only would the idea of a directly democratic Internet perish, but so would any semblance of a valuable one, as more and more new sites adopt this user-generated-content model. Users should continue to be the ones who select the best content, not the owners of Internet access channels.

There is much work to be done and action to be taken on this issue. The easiest way to get started with involvement on this issue is to go to SaveTheInternet.com. There you’ll find background information as well as daily news concerning Net Neutrality.

There is also legislation that seeks to directly address and ensure Net Neutrality. One example is the Media Ownership Reform Act, sponsored by Democratic Representatives Maurice Hinchey of New York and Diane Watson of California. Another piece of legislation is the Internet Freedom and Preservation Act of 2007, a bi-partisan Senate measure sponsored by Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine. Understanding where Congressmembers, Senators, and Presidential hopefuls stand on these two pieces of legislation will be very telling in terms of their views on the importance of a fair and open Internet.

Net neutrality is one of the cornerstones of technology policy today. Preserving and protecting it from powerful cable and telephone company lobbies is essential to achieving the goals of freedom of expression, diversities of viewpoints, and equal access to information. Just as media consolidation hurts consumers, consolidation of control over Internet access hurts consumers, by robbing them of access to quality content.

article originally published at http://www.thesuperspade.com/podcast-on-the-importance-of-a-public-internet/.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey