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Leave My Internet Alone: Network Neutrality

As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such a twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwilling victims of the darkness. – William Douglas

Without net neutrality, the Internet would start to look like cable TV. A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs. Major industries such as health care, finance, retailing and gambling would face huge tariffs for fast, secure Internet use … Most of the great innovators in the history of the Internet started out in their garages with great ideas and little capital. This is no accident. Network neutrality protections minimized control by the network owners, maximized competition and invited outsiders in to innovate. Net neutrality guaranteed a free and competitive market for Internet content.

Lawrence Lessig & Robert W. McChesney

If you pay attention to the news, you might have heard the term. What does it mean? Why is it important? How will you be affected and what, if anything, should you do? Today, I put forth a primer on Network Neutrality, a critical concept whose implementation (or lack thereof) will affect the future of the Internet itself.

What Is It And Why Is It Important?

The definition of Network Neutrality has been continually redefined since its inception, but its most basic idea is that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, i.e., regardless of which application you are using, or what type of content you are consuming (e.g., high quality videos, vanilla web pages, MMOGs like World of Warcraft), all of the bits that ultimately make up your traffic will be treated the same. This is not some quixotic, utopian ideal, but a reality that is an inherent part of what the Internet is and how information moves through its connections.

Parity and egalitarianism have been a substantive reason for the rise of companies such as FaceBook and Google, and the flourishing of a new democratic medium that has allowed people from all over the world to reach out and connect with one another in ways that were previously not possible. Take a moment to let this sink in. With access to an Internet connection, anyone, anywhere in the world has an immense amount of personal power available to them. They can:

  • Create a blog and discuss their thoughts and ideas on topics they are passionate about (Blogger, WordPress.com)
  • Educate themselves by utilizing an increasing amount of free, high-quality, didactic content
  • Become more active in their local communities (Meetup)
  • Improve their career by finding new employment and getting advice on how to improve their resume or interviewing skills (Careerbuilder, Monster)
  • Become more active in their government by researching candidates they might vote for or contacting their representatives regarding policies they feel might personally affect them or their communities (Project Vote Smart)
  • Stay in touch with friends and family or reach out to new people that share their interests and beliefs (Skype, Reddit, Twitter)
  • Find a plethora of both user-generated and professionally written, audio and video content

At present (if you are one of the approximately 2 billion people with an Internet connection), your ability to experience the comprehensive offerings of the Internet is only limited by the maximum upload/download speeds provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). In regard to the source and type of content you are using, there is minimal discrimination (barring you do not live in a country such as China or Iran).

What if this was not the case? What if being the operator of a connection that makes up a part of the Internet, and providing this all-you-can-eat connection was not enough for your local ISP? What if they wanted more? Would ISPs and their partners (i.e., content providers) try to fundamentally change how the Internet works and potentially undermine the egalitarian principles upon which it was based for profit? Obviously, the answer is yes.

Et Tu, ISP?

Why would they want to do this? What if your ISP decided they wanted to expand their offerings and, for example, decided to create their own VoIP solution as an add-on service. It would be in their best interest to promote their own product at the expense of their competitors (e.g., Skype). Since they control your connection to the Internet, what is to stop them from discriminating against traffic from their competitor by slowing down or otherwise impeding the flow of information processed by that application, while aggrandizing their own offering?

In essence, the fear is that ISPs and content providers will create a two-tier Internet, where an ISP’s own services and those of any content providers willing to pay the ISP’s fees, would receive priority (i.e., faster, more efficient data transfer in a “fast lane”), while everything else would be relegated to a “slow lane.”

Therefore, ISPs would serve as Internet gatekeepers, deciding what traffic goes fast or slow, and what content is accessible. The decentralized, open Internet would be remade to reflect the old, closed, centralized structures that traditional telephone and cable operators are familiar with and find so lucrative.

Rules And Regulations

The FCC released a new set of net neutrality rules for ISPs on December 21st, 2010. A brief synopsis of the key principles/regulations follows.

ISPs are now required to publicly disclose all their network management practices, so end users can make informed decisions about what types of behavior they are willing to tolerate when purchasing Internet service (which is only relevant if there is a choice of provider in the first place).

The wired Internet (i.e., what the majority of end users are currently using to experience the Internet) is protected by laws that closely adhere to what many consider the net neutrality ideal. What this means is that ISPs providing wired Internet connections are now prohibited from blocking any legal content, application or service. Crucially, this prohibition includes any manipulation (i.e., slowing down, throttling, etc.) of said traffic.

Perhaps most disturbing, the essential protective measures that have been adopted for wired Internet access have not been applied to wireless Internet access. While some would argue that the wireless Internet is in an inchoate stage, and any regulation would stifle its development, mercenary corporations know that in the future, the wireless medium is how the majority of people will access the Internet, and are now cynically using whatever resources/lobbying power they have to preclude any law that would hinder their ability to monetize this lucrative market.

Wireless ISPs, while prohibited from blocking services that directly compete with their own offerings, can discriminate, which means that you may find some of your favorite services slowed down (possibly to the point of becoming unusable) when your ISP deems it neccessary, ostensibly under the pretext of “network management.” Even worse, your ISP could choose to charge additional fees for access to specific services (e.g., Youtube or Skype).

Another exemption for wireless ISPs is for Managed Services, i.e., services a company pays extra for, and thus requires a higher level of service. For example, AT&T offers a service called IPTV (a.k.a., U-verse), where television and on-demand services are provided over the Internet, instead of over cable or radio frequencies. In order to provide superior service, they reserve bandwidth for just these services, thereby providing less bandwidth for everything else. While this does not sound inherently deleterious, the potential for abuse is painfully present.

What Can You Do?

Although it might seem futile to resist the influence of powerful telecommunications companies with considerable coffers that spend millions of dollars lobbying governments to further their financial interests, there are organizations that are doing their best to defend the principles of Net Neutrality and the rights of the digital citizen. Freepress’s SavetheInternet.com Coalition and the Open Internet Coalition are two such organizations whose goals are to protect and advocate an open Internet.

Their sites contain more detailed information on Net Neutrality, e.g., the history of Net Neutrality, what the current legal context is, who the major players are, what their organization is presently doing to protect Net Neutrality, and ways for anyone interested to get involved.

To Be Continued

Human beings are inextricably linked to their technology, and occasionally, a new technology is created that forever changes the course of human development. The Internet and the Virtual Revolution are undeniably such events. Like any other technology, the Internet is accompanied by negative characteristics that can be used for nefarious purposes, but the net effect (no pun intended) for the average global citizen is overwhelmingly positive.

Something worth having is something worth fighting for, so make your voice heard and support Net Neutrality.

 Further Reading:

Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination

Would Mandating Broadband Network Neutrality Help or Hurt Competition? A Comment on the End-to-End Debate

An Introduction to Net Neutrality: What It Is, What It Means for You, and What You Can Do About It

The skinny on Net neutrality

Image via Taramisu

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