Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Net neutrality, the free speech issue of our time.

The Internet is a series of tubes. Or at least it used to be. As the “information superhighway” emerges from adolescence, you and I may soon find ourselves relegated to the heavy traffic on the right, while those willing and able to pay more enjoy their own, faster diamond lane.

Simply, we have just lived through the Golden Age of the Internet. The days of free and equal access (to say nothing of anonymity) may soon whiz by us altogether.

You remember it, don’t you? The mid 1990′s through the 2010′s when “cyber space” was a wild west of land grabbing, domain name snatching, de-facto anonymity and poorly-designed websites. It was a place for chitchat on message boards, chat rooms and AIM, with few users (comparatively) and little corporate investment.

Today, clearly it’s more. Difficult to define, it is a resource, a commodity, a necessity. A more developed, faster Internet with a more tech savvy, e-literate audience has opened communication and increased information. It has reshaped commercial activity and social interactions. It has fundamentally altered the landscape of our culture.

It is inseparable from our lives.

When the buzz on Twitter makes the gossip columns, nightly news, and the papers, you know it ain’t how it used to be.

But, you knew all that, right?

Because until we admit to ourselves just how important the net has become, it’s impossible to understand the importance of net neutrality.

The New York Times explains it like this:

“The concept of ‘net neutrality’ holds that companies providing Internet service should treat all sources of data equally. It has been the center of a debate over whether those companies can give preferential treatment to content providers who pay for faster transmission, or to their own content, in effect creating a two-tier Web, and about whether they can block or impede content representing controversial points of view.”

The Internet’s future isn’t hard to predict in general terms. News, entertainment, opinion, discussion and commerce will continue flooding our screens and gushing forth from our notebooks, pads, desktops and phones.

You should care about this issue because it will determine if you get equal access to what others are saying, and that others have equal access to what you say. If net neutrality fails, in some instances, access to information online may become limited due to slower speed; in others, access may be denied entirely because of contractual disputes or blocked because of political disagreements.

I get my Internet from Verizon, and Comcast owns NBC. Unchecked, it’s possible that one day I could wake up and find I’m blocked from watching “Dateline” and “The Office.” Access to a political blog with opinions unfavorable toward Verizon could become subtly or blatantly blocked to me, too. My favorite “mom and pop” website will be outpaced by Target online.

Suddenly, that’s news, entertainment, opinion and products I’m unable to access.

I don’t trust anyone to tell me what I can and cannot read, watch or hear. Further, I don’t trust for-profit companies to care about my equal right to information. I don’t think they are inherently bad, they just really don’t care.

And that’s fine.

But, we need a mechanism to ensure that access to information, in terms of literal access and in terms of speed, remains equal.

In the future, speed will influence everything. And so even a subtle discrimination like lower speeds will, in part, determine access. And access determines which voices are heard and which are not. We have become our own editors, determining what we feel is important and sharing that with others. I don’t think many people would embrace going back.

Recently, Congress announced they would begin re-examining the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which essentially governs the entire communication industry in the U.S. The fourteen-year-old act barely mentions the Internet, and yet remains the regulatory framework for just about everything from obscenity and violence in the media, to telecommunication, broadcast and cable services, to anti-trust rules for the industry.

More recently, Google and Verizon together proposed a model for the future of net neutrality that have caused many to become uneasy. Especially as some claim that Google is back peddling from it’s former hard line position in favor of net neutrality.

As Congress begins to re-write these laws, and as interest groups and corporations begin to lobby for a new architecture and design for how we communicate, I urge you to think carefully about what net neutrality really means.

Senator Franken, an advocate for net neutrality, wrote his take on the issue for

“The internet was developed at taxpayer expense to benefit the public interest. If we let corporations prioritize some content over others, we’ll lose what makes it so valuable to our economy, our democracy and our daily lives.

Net neutrality may sound like a technical issue, but it’s the key to preserving the Internet as we know it — and it’s the most important First Amendment issue of our time.”

TL:DR – Here’s a fun video made by!!

Originally posted on tngg.