Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Net neutrality

The internet is political. This is why net neutrality is critical: the net isn't just about streaming video entertainment and time-wasting flash games. To hearken back to our early readings, the original purpose of the internet had defense in mind. Now it's used for a variety of activist purposes. For every frivolous Facebook conversation, there's the potential for a tweet that helps bring down a malevolent dictator. The Open Internet nails it in simple language: "A free and open internet protects the freedom of speech." I certainly don't trust the few big ISP's we have to monitor political discourse by manipulating traffic, and to make things worse, our selection of ISP's is extremely small.

You might say that ISP's would have no more control over politics in a tiered pricing system than they do now. But the restrictions on innovation this kind of system would cause can still be subtly political. Most people wouldn't claim Twitter is a "political" site, but it's frequently used as an activist platform. What happens when Comcast throttles traffic to it to redirect traffic to their inferior proprietary Twitter clone? Who knows what kind of impact this could have on the unpredictable activist usage of the web. Rather, a free and open internet can allow activism to thrive much better by presenting a broad range of potentially more innovative choices. This is why Blodget's argument fails: price weighting by ISP's for purposes that seem solely commercial can still have wide-ranging effects. Additionally, his postal delivery analogy is haphazard at best. Unlike packages, bits are always the same size, and there is far less variance in the ways they must be treated during delivery. Of course, this doesn't mean that ISP's shouldn't be able to charge more for faster all-around access. As long as the content in a subscription plan is still equally weighted and open, ISP's have the right to charge exorbitant prices for high-bandwidth connections.

The FCC's current attempt to enforce net neutrality was encouraging, but the outcome has stooped too much to the ISP's. We need what Verizon (ironically) called "solid statutory underpinnings." Yet these rules don't have to be complex. Ideally, they will be separate from the architecture of the internet, as that (along with the ways we access the internet) is bound to change. These laws should unambiguously protect against pricing models and traffic restrictions that inflict a bias toward certain content. They should make it clear that any such content biases are potentially political and potentially violations of our right to free speech.

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