Thursday, November 20, 2008

Net Neutrality: Because If We Don't Know About It, We Can't Fight It

While net neutrality may not seem as urgent a civil liberties issue as, say, torture and illegal detainment, maintaining its existence is essential to freedom of the press.

Even though newspapers have no idea where they're going or how they're going to manage things by the time they get there, the reality is that the future of the press is on the Internet. But big corporations want to limit equal access to content without preferential treatment by ISPs. Telecom companies.meanwhile, want to be able to sell access to those big corporations and be able to limit access to information that it may find objectionable.

Like, perhaps, stories that point out what incredible weinies they are and how they have not one iota of respect for their customers' right to privacy?

As interested as I am on the subject, I wasn't aware (until Andy Hoover pointed it out to me) of the fact that the ACLU has taken a position on net neutrality. Its position paper, No Competition: How Monopoly Control of the Broadband Internet Threatens Free Speech, says:

...the Internet is without doubt the most vital and active such forum around today – a place where citizens can publish their views to be seen by a few close friends, or spread around the world; where citizens can engage with others on thousands of bulletin boards and chat rooms on nearly any topic, create new communities of interest, or communicate anonymously about difficult topics. It is one of our top entertainment mediums. It is the nation's most comprehensive, flexible, and popular reference work. It is the closest thing ever invented to a true "free market" of ideas.

That is why the American Civil Liberties Union has a keen interest in the continued openness and vitality of the Internet as a medium for free expression.

The paper goes on to give a nifty little analogy of how free expression is threatened by control of access and how a net neutrality law would protect it:

...providers can "slow or block access to certain sites on the Internet, such as those without financial arrangements with the cable company's ISP, or those with content considered objectionable for political or competitive reasons," even while they "speed transmission to an affiliated site (or a site that has paid the operator for the privilege of special treatment)." That is like the phone company being allowed to own restaurants and then provide good service and clear signals to customers who call Domino's and frequent busy signals, disconnects and static for those calling Pizza Hut. Outrageous? It would be entirely possible if the telephone system wasn't regulated under the common carrier framework. At a time when many cable providers have assembled far- flung business empires on the premise that cross-promotion and other "synergies" will yield big profits, they will come under strong pressure to do the equivalent. And what can be done in the commercial context could be done just as easily to political content.

Anyway, there has been some good news that an Obama Administration may take the issue of net neutrality seriously. Last week, the Obama-Biden transition team appointed two staunch net-neutrality advocates to be in charge of its Federal Communications Commission review team.

The picks are important because, as the Wired article points out:
"The choice of the duo strongly signals an entirely different approach to the incumbent-friendly telecom policymaking that's characterized most of the past eight-years at the FCC."

One of the appointed is Susan Crawford, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. In a talk she gave in March, she said she believes that the Internet access is a utility. Crawford said of the right to access in her talk, "This is like water, electricity, sewage systems: Something that each and all Americans need to succeed in the modern era. We're doing very badly, and we're in a dismal state."

As Wired writer Sarah Lai Stirland points out, "This is an observation sure to send shivers down the spines of telecom company executives."

Lauri in York


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article! I don't want my access to Speaking Freely to suffer unexplainable "temporary" interruptions of service!

4:04 PM  

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