Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Dangerous Distortions
Those of us who have lived on the Internet for several years have seen this day coming, and now it's almost here--the day the Internet, which evolved in the ultimate small-D democratic manner to become the civilization-altering force it is today, is handed over wholesale to major telecommunications corporations, who will make it fit a business model that ensures they make as much money as possible from those willing to pay, and to hell with everybody else. A committee in the House of Reprsentatives is set to vote on a bill this week that would end the practice of "net neutrality" and permit corporations a greater role than ever before in determining what gets done online, and by whom.

I lack both the expertise and the attention span to fully explain the concept of net neutrality and why major telecommunications companies are opposed to it, but here's how I understand it: Right now, every communication on the Internet is treated like every other. My MP3 download of a song from your website goes through the pipeline right alongside a video download somebody is getting from a TV network's website. Your online order of two books from a tiny used book store in East Overshoe goes right alongside some right-wing foundation's order of 10,000 Ann Coulter books from Amazon. It happens that way because of net neutrality. But if neutrality is erased, and telecommunications companies are given the right to regulate traffic, Amazon and the TV network would have the right (and the dollars) to pay for the highest-speed access, while others would have to settle for the slow lane.

Some observers think the ultimate goal is to keep Internet users within the walls of a defined space, a la AOL, and charging them extra to go elsewhere. (In the old days of AOL, you couldn't get out of their network at all.) Limiting users to a private network not controlls user eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers, it also can keep "undesirable" content out--and "undesirable" can be defined any way the private controlling entity wants to define it. In Canada recently, users of AT&T's Internet service were kept from viewing the website of a company sympathetic to a union AT&T was negotiating with. There would be little to stop the telephone companies from refusing to permit their Internet customers to use voice-over-IP telephone services like Vonage, for example.

Of course, supporters of the bill that would end net neutrality are spinning it as a property rights issue--pity the poor corporations who are being denied their god-given right to do whatever is good for them. However, that's a dangerous distortion of not only the issue of net neutrality, but a dangerous distortion of what the Internet is. It's not merely a medium of communication--it's communication itself.

There's a thread at Political Animal that tries to explain the issue from the ground up; Steve Gilliard (who has been scary good the last couple of weeks on various issues) has a great essay on what the end of net neutrality will mean in practical terms. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is going to vote on the bill ending net neutrality this week--if your representative is a member of that committee, there's no time to write a letter and e-mails aren't worth very much. Call 'em. Find out who's on the committee and learn more about the issue here.

More Recommended Reading:
As a history geek, I am forever trying to view current events through the lens of history. Distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. takes a look today, comparing the Bush doctrine of preventive war to the Cold War doctrine of containment-plus-deterrence. Although he ends his column with a paragraph of absurdly wishful thinking about how Bush might be "moved by daily sorrows of death and destruction to forgo solo preventive war"--fat chance--it's still a worthwhile perspective.

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