THE INTERNET NEEDS TO BE FREE
That’s not a statement about pricing, it’s a statement about democracy.
This is what is commonly referred to as “Net Neutrality.”
According to Columbia Law School’s Tim Wu, policy advocate and author of “The Master Switch” about Net Neutrality, Net Neutrality is “the idea that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application. The principle suggests that information networks are often more valuable when they are less specialized—when they are a platform for multiple uses, present and future.” (see Tim Wu, “Network Neutrality FAQ”)
UPDATE: The FCC has published its new Net Neutrality regulations. For a description of the Net Neutrality rules, which are to go into effect on November 20, 2011, read “FCC Makes Its Net Neutrality Rules Official (Updated)” from THE WRAP.
To be clear, Net Neutrality and “keeping the Internet free” are issues that are separate from the prices of various plans offered by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), whose ‘pipelines’ connect you to the Internet. Most ISPs are huge corporate conglomerates like AT&T and other telephone companies (“telcos”), and Comcast and other cable companies.
The telephone and cable companies took over as ISPs because they had much of the physical infrastructure—the phone lines and coax cables that went right into your living room, as well as the marketing strength to sell them to you—when the Internet as we know it today was born.
Ever since, the cable companies and telcos have treated the delivery of the Internet as merely an add-on product used to promote their cable TV and telephone packages and profit schemes.
This is becoming onerous because, in this fox-watching-over-the-chicken-coop scenario, it is actually in the best interests of the corporate conglomerates to cripple and restrict the Internet in order to increase their own profits and stymie competition.
For instance, the cable companies who own much of the Internet infrastructure and use it to sell you their cable TV packages are opposed to the growth of the plethora of Internet video distribution sites. They see “cord-cutting” as a threat, and they view companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming operations which are trying to deliver programming to you over the Internet, as business-stealing competition. UPDATE: The cable industry is now, as of September 2011, beginning to see broadband Internet as something that could become their core business offering, rather than using it solely as a come-on to sell pay-TV packages. (see “How over-the-top video actually helps the cable industry” by GIGAOM.
Comcast has already exercised fiscal threat over Netflix (see the New York Times article, “Netflix Partner Says Comcast ‘Toll’ Threatens Online Video Delivery” and the Wall St Journal article “Level 3 Contests Comcast Deal”), and Time-Warner, the conglomerate with cable properties such as HBO, has become very loud in its attack on Netflix (see Fast Company article “Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes Attacks Netflix”).
Comcast has also sued the FCC to prevent Net Neutrality. UPDATE: Verizon will also sue the FCC to prevent Net Neutrality. Republicans, of course, fight to oppose the use of the Internet for democracy rather than corporate profits; each Republican on the FCC voted against Net Neutrality, and Republicans in Congress, such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, as well as Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, will vote to protect the corporations and remove Net Neutrality. Without regard for citizens or democracy, Republicans repeat that companies and industries that use broadband communications have flourished over the last decade without government intervention, and are committed to protect only the companies and industries rather than the citizens and democracy. (see “FCC Makes Its Net Neutrality Rules Official” on THE WRAP)
It is in the best interests of the cable and telephone companies to act against the public interest. The conflict-of-interest is astounding.
WHAT WE FACE NOW
We are in a position where the Internet is at the mercy of corporate conglomerates. Their various profit schemes require them, for the sake of shareholders, to act in the opposite of the public interest, to cripple the Internet and restrict different types of access in order to increase their own profits and reduce competition from “outsiders.”
This is wrong and needs to be corrected.
WHERE WE HAVE BEEN
There have been times in this country’s development when critical infrastructure was protected for the good of the people, while also allowing profit for corporations. Examples include public transportation, telephone service, electric utilities, airlines, the public airwaves, movie distribution, and other functions that are critical for the public good, education, enrichment, and safety.
Eventually, after the infrastructure was sound and protected, the government stepped away. For instance, AT&T is what it is today because the government originally protected American Telephone and Telegraph as a monopoly utility in order to assure the growth of high standards of quality, reliability, and access. In exchange for that unique monopoly about a century ago, we developed the best telephone system in the world, one that was accessible to all citizens, who could call anyone anywhere for any reason without discrimination by the phone company. Yes, there were flaws in that monopoly system, but the end result was an infrastructure of the highest quality and neutrality. Your access to anything legal was guaranteed and your privacy was assured.
Remember this: The phone company wired your home under government protection. Its infrastructure was built via government regulation. Your government gave the phone company exclusive rights to build right-of-ways, install poles, string wires, and enter your home. The cable companies had the same protection, protected by city government regulations. Your government gave “franchise” rights to a single company in your community to do the same things with cable.
These companies screaming about government control over the issue of Net Neutrality were also screaming for government protection when they wanted to build their infrastructure.
In a different regulatory approach, when the movie studios had control over the movie theaters throughout our country, back when movies where an exclusive form of entertainment, education, and enrichment, our society recognized the need to open up the system in order to give more voices a chance for discovery. We took action and created the Paramount Decree, also known as the “Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948“. Our society recognized the need to separate the distribution system from the owners of the content in order to allow competition and free expression by those voices that did not fit within the narrow sliver of profitable audiences that were the sole target of the movie studios.
FURTHER, back then—even just a couple decades ago—the rest of the world struggled to become technologically competitive with us.
For instance, the traditional landline telephone system of just a couple decades ago was a marvel of technology. Unlike the low expectations and wide tolerance for failure that an entire generation in this country has now grown to accept because of the vagaries of ubiquitous wireless phones, the traditional landline telephone system in the U.S. was reliable, consistent, and exceptional, something not known in most of the world. We took it for granted.
This type of quality has always been the result of Research and Development systems that were free from the crippling demands of immediate profits to feed to shareholders. Now, we are overwhelmed with an attitude of “good enough,” which isn’t, but which is pushed to provide immediate profit potential and which causes us to lose our standing as a technology leader in the world. This is the current state of Internet development in the U.S.
WHAT IS “QUALITY OF SERVICE”?
A significant element of the Internet’s infrastructure, which affects the corporate conglomerates and you, personally, is the premise of “Quality of Service.” This is the technical and complex aspect of operating the World Wide Web on the original ARPANET structure created by the U.S. government to assure decentralized communication that could survive a nuclear attack. To get a grasp of the complexity of Quality of Service, you may wish to review “A Nice Way to Get Network Quality of Service?”
The corporate conglomerates protest, among other things, that they cannot figure out an immediately profitable way to work under Quality of Service paradigms unless they limit access to the Internet. Except, of course, for the wealthy and elite.
WHY WE NEED NET NEUTRALITY
The Internet is now at a point where the potential to be crippled by corporate profit schemes is threatening the reliability, consistency, development, and unrestricted access that is proven to be an important component of democracy today.
We have seen such crippling before.
We watched as the “public airwaves” were degraded and crippled by the ever-shrinking number of large corporate conglomerates that now control them. Access to the public airwaves by all citizens and for all citizens has become more and more restricted, to the point that, today, the public airwaves represent a narrow homogeneous and controlled representation of only that slice of our society which can generate significant profits for corporate conglomerates.
Corporate-driven censorship based on potential immediate profitability is as insidious as politically-based censorship.
Net Neutrality is the opponent of the growing threat of corporate-based and politically-based censorship.
The government once aggressively protected broadcasting to assure the public airwaves would be for the citizens, but it now steps away from it. In light of corporate conglomerates perverting the egalitarian and democratic use of public airwaves, according to former FCC Chairman Reed Hunt, the FCC has deliberately moved to promote the Internet over broadcasting as the one and only “common medium” for America. This is a direct result of the elimination of diversity created by overwhelming the broadcast system by corporate conglomerates.
The FCC weakly attempted to reclassify Internet connections as technologically equivalent to telephone services, which would put the Internet and Net Neutrality back under its umbrella. The FCC was too weak in the face of Republicans and lobbyists and gave up. The opponents are served by the profits of the existing corporate conglomerates and the delusion of the so-called “status-quo” and not motivated by democracy.
In The Wrap on Thursday, February 17, 2011, the article “BREAKING: House Votes to Block FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules“, the Republicans are shown fighting hard to destroy Net Neutrality. Citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, China and other countries must be thinking Americans are insane to be destroying the democracy of the Internet in our own country, to give full censorship powers to corporations and leave citizens without the right to unrestricted Internet access.
WHAT ARE THE CORPORATE CONGLOMERATES DOING WITH THE INTERNET?
It is proven that when the corporate conglomerates control the switch, they will turn off that which annoys them or does not fill their profit schemes, citizens be damned.
AT&T, Verizon Communications, Comcast, and other conglomerates demand that they be allowed to manage their networks as they see fit, which has meant creating profit and stifling competition and innovation.
This is even more of an issue now that Comcast freely overtook NBC/Universal with corporate power that overwhelmed democracy; Comcast had already sued (and won) to fight against Net Neutrality. (See the Findlaw article, “F.C.C. (and Net Neutrality Supporters) Lose Case Against Comcast“. The unimpeded and hostile-to-America takeover of NBC/Universal by Comcast created a monster player among the conglomerates who control the infrastructure of the Internet.
In the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, January 2, 2011, the article “Media Merger To Create Monster” takes positions that echo what I am saying. The danger is here to be seen.
These conglomerates make noise about “knowing what their customers want” while notoriously forcing upon us anything but what we want. For instance, people are getting fed up with the onerous cable company package offerings forced upon them and practice cord-cutting in search of better options. This cord-cutting, enabled by unfettered Internet access, is the threat that cable companies fear. (See the Communications Technology article “Cord Cutting: A Slow but Steady Thing” and the MYCE.com article “Severe decline in pay-TV subscribers supports ‘cord cutting’ premise”.
As an example of how petty the corporate conglomerates can be, and how easily they dismiss American citizens, do some research on the recent battle between FOX and Cablevision as they wrangled their retransmission agreement in New York. “Fox raised the ante by also blocking Cablevision broadband subscribers from accessing Fox programming on Hulu,” reported StopTheCap.com, and the Bloomberg article “In its showdown with Cablevision, News Corp. briefly blocked subscribers from viewing Fox shows on its website and on Hulu, a free TV site”.
We recently learned that Comcast has been extorting a toll from the delivery provider for NetFlix. Comcast, with its own movie delivery services, demands heavy fees to carry Netflix content in order to disadvantage and extract more money from its competitors. Although Comcast offers “sound business reasons” for their actions, the conflict of interest is irrefutable. (See the SeekingAlpha.com article “Comcast Battle With Netflix Over Level 3 Fees Strains Boundaries of Net Neutrality”.
Even the movie studios, mostly aligned with the corporate conglomerates that control the Internet’s infrastructure, are advocating the crippling of the Internet in order to supposedly protect their product from piracy. While piracy, of course, is a serious issue, crippling the Internet is the wrong course of action. The Internet must not be perverted for the whims of profit protection.
The right wing sees Net Neutrality as a socialist plot to regulate the Internet for the benefit of citizens and at the detriment of corporations. Of course, our telephone system was a similar ‘plot.’ As was our airline system. And bus transportation. But this is a time when cooperation must be brought to the forefront and progress must be made. The loud right wing prefers the proven damage done by corporate conglomerates, with an outrageously dogmatic fear of possible damage done by the government, but that corporate damage will be too significant to our society to ignore anymore.
WHERE DO WE STAND WITH TECHNOLOGY?
In my opinion, Net Neutrality must be coupled with aggressive research and development and infrastructure to make the U.S. competitive once again for tomorrow’s Internet needs. We are not competitive. America should be embarrassed.
This is an opportunity for Job Creation.
Our Internet infrastructure has already become moribund because it is solely in the hands of corporate conglomerates whose only interest is immediate shareholder value derived from cable TV packages and phone service packages. Innovation is on the back burner and loses out to demands for immediate and immense profits.
America does not compete. We have failed as a world leader in pushing the broadband standard because we have relinquished control to the telcos and cable companies. For instance, according to the BBC, South Korea is already ahead of the global technological curve, but is looking to boost broadband speeds across the nation to up to 1 GB speed. This is the kind of broadband needed for accessing the highest quality content, such as high-resolution 4K video for entertainment and education, which currently can’t be delivered to anybody. (See YouTube’s new 4K capability.)
This year, Chile became the first country to pass a Net Neutrality law to “ensure access to all types of content, services or applications available on the network and offer a service that does not distinguish content, applications or services, based on the source of it or their property.”
In my opinion, we need to not only provide the protection of Net Neutrality, we need to also provide the future capacity of the Internet.
WHAT SHOULD AMERICA DO?
Because these corporate conglomerates cannot work in the public interest, I suggest that it is imperative to have the U.S. develop both a legal and a technical solution for the future of the Internet.
America needs something similar to the Paramount Decree, or the Bell Telephone protection of a century ago, or a quasi-government stand-alone corporation like the U.S. Postal Service or Amtrak or Fannie Mae. Something that separates the Internet infrastructure from the cable and telephone companies. Something that also protects the Internet from potential government censorship, which is stepping up right now because of the Wikileaks scandal.
Once appropriate regulations protect citizens from restricted Internet access, we must couple that with technological progress.
Parallel to the existing corporate conglomerate structure, which is on the verge of crippling itself for the sake of short-term shareholder profits, the government should require the pursuit of tomorrow’s Internet backbone with, for instance, 1GB of bandwidth and the same unfettered access that resulted from the government’s protection and support of the infrastructure for our telephone system.
Perhaps this would be a public works-type project that could propel our economy forward, make us competitive in the world once again, and protect democratic access to the Internet. This could be an opportunity to create jobs in high-level technical fields that hold promise for the future.
The Economist, in the recent article “The Web’s New Walls—How the Threats to the Internet’s Openness Can be Averted,” said, “The best solution would be to require telco and cable operators to open their high-speed networks to rivals on a wholesale basis, as is the case almost everywhere in the industrialized world. America’s big network operators have long argued that being forced to share their networks would undermine their incentives to invest in new infrastructure, and thus hamper the roll-out of broadband. But that has not happened in other countries that have mandated such ‘open access’, and enjoy faster and cheaper broadband than America.”
I suggest a larger leap forward. The government could arrange a system so that new operations could start up parallel to the corporate conglomerates and pursue tomorrow’s Internet pipeline capability free of the corporate conglomerate’s desires to restrict Internet access and create immediate maximum profitability.
A “Paramount Decree” for the new millennium.
There are technologies right now that can lay the groundwork for exploitation and development, such as existing fiber optic networks. (See the Wall Street Journal article, “Fiber Networks Go on the Block” at “Fiber-based solutions represent the telecommunications industry’s next great hope” says Carmi Levy, a consultant on Internet issues. (See the Inc.com article, “Fiber Increases Broadband Internet Alternatives”.
Of course, we would want to progress beyond even this technology and find exciting new and improved technologies and services.
America needs a new “Bell Labs” environment which flourished under unique monopoly protection decades ago and gave us, most importantly, the transistor—the heart of the digital transformation we now enjoy. We need the Internet delivery-equivalent of the transistor.
UPDATE: Here is an article from The New York Times, February 25, 2012, about Bell Labs and its impact on our lives: “True Innovation” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/innovation-and-the-bell-labs-miracle.html
Such a discussion would revolve around the history of common carrier regulations, protected utilities, government corporations (the USPS, Fannie Mae, etc.), anti-trust issues, and other such approaches. It is too big a need to be left to the self-serving, citizen-hostile corporate conglomerates and their supporters who believe in the delusion of the so-called “status quo” and the ultimate supremacy of corporations as the meaning of America.
This is a scary subject, to be sure.
It would be based on lessons learned from past common carrier/public utility/protected monopoly approaches, while seeking exciting new approaches. There would need to be success at that most unbelievable level in today’s society: bi-partisanship and cooperation.
It would be an interesting conversation, if productive conversation still exists in our society.
But one thing is for sure:
The Internet is too important to democracy to be merely an add-on for corporations to sell cable TV and telephone packages.
Cory Doctorow: see Locus Magazine — “Net Neutrality for Writers: It’s All About the Leverage“
Tim Wu: see Slate — “Bellwether: Ma Bell is back. Should you be afraid?“
Tim Berners-Lee: see MIT’s CSail — “Net Neutrality: This is serious“
Tim Berners-Lee: see The Telegraph — “Tim Berners-Lee defends net neutrality“
Steve Wozniak: see The Atlantic — “Steve Wozniak to the FCC: Keep the Internet Free“
Mike Fahey: see Kotaku – “Why Gamers Should Care About Net Neutrality“
Susan Crawford: see WIRED Opinion – “Can’t All Be in Google’s Kansas: A Plan for Winning the Bandwidth Race“
UPDATE NOVEMBER 20, 2012:
GOOGLE is involved in an international effort, “A free and open world depends on a free and open web.” and asks for you to take action.
“A free and open world depends on a free and open Internet. Governments alone, working behind closed doors, should not direct its future. The billions of people around the globe who use the Internet should have a voice.“