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Why we need net neutrality, and can’t trust the FCC to do it

Net neutrality has reared its head again in the passed couple weeks, thanks both to a new piece of legislation (which isn’t all it’s cracked up to be) and a lot of shotty interpretation of what net neutrality is and why we need it.

Basically, net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers, like Comcast and Time Warner, are not allowed to differentiate between types of Internet data even though it’s delivered via wires and tubes that they own. This means subscribers get the “whole” Internet, without discrimination based on format or content. Doing this prevents ISPs from charging more for certain sites, blocking sites of their choice, or throttling traffic speeds based on content, pay, or the amount of data used.

It isn’t what’s espoused by some of my colleagues, that “local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Time Warner Cable must treat [one’s] illicit video with just as much urgency as [another’s] life-saving medical data.”

It’s also about a lot more than protecting music and software pirates from legal action. The term may be new to a lot of people, but net neutrality itself isn’t a new idea. It’s a new name that’s been tacked on to describe something that’s been the norm since the dawn of the Internet until pretty recently; one that stands at the core of the Internet as the cultural driving force it has become.

Why we need an open Internet

In the early days of the Internet, it wasn’t so much an issue because the technology that allows “deep-packet inspections” – intercepting and analyzing data on that large a scale – just didn’t really exist yet. Besides, there wasn’t enough on the Internet to be worth regulating.

So all of the content that was put on the Internet was free, and open for anyone to access. All you needed was a phone line and an ISP subscription, and the entire Internet was at your disposal: a virtual wild west for information junkies.

And then there was porn. And porn meant money. Whether a good or bad thing, it drove the expansion of the Internet since the very beginning, and helped spur new advances in images and video on the Internet. Soon people were sending pictures and video to their friends, and more and more people were getting online. (Random cool fact: Even before it was possible to send images, people were sending text-generated ASCII porn to their friends. It goes that far back.)

Fast forward 15 years or so. Now we have Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, iTunes, Google Earth, and the entire peer-to-peer file-sharing universe, which with the help of others comprise the biggest library in all of human history. You can read a 2,000 word entry about the use of the umlaut in heavy metal on Wikipedia, watch old videos of Jack Kerouac on YouTube, and then download every book Mark Twain ever wrote and the entire Clash discography in as few mouse clicks to count on one hand. Am I the only one who thinks that, from a cultural standpoint, that’s pretty freaking cool?

The best part? So can anybody else with open access to the Internet. Regardless of nationality, social strata, race, religion, or any other divider, as long as one has access to an Internet terminal, they can experience just about any event they want, even if it happened ages ago and they’d previously only read about it in a dry history book.

Would Wikileaks have the power that it does if there were “tiered” Internet subscriptions like the ones the new so-called “regulations” allow, so that voter Joe Schmoe with an Internet connection couldn’t afford to access all of the Internet? Or worse yet, if ISPs were allowed to block access to content that they, for whatever reason, deemed inappropriate?

Look at the recent Wikileaks debacle to see how little fight big businesses put up when faced with a little political pressure. Bank of America, PayPal, Amazon, Apple, Visa and MasterCard have all caved in recent weeks, whether it was refusing to accept payments to the company, or dropping a certain controversial application from a certain online store.

Having a single, open Internet is one of the biggest drivers of an open society because it democratizes both cultural events and general information, especially that which authoritarian control systems would seek to censor. It’s a little window in to the zeitgeist, right in your living room.

Letting the fox guard the henhouse

Despite the dire need for a singular, open Internet, the new self-imposed FCC rulings represent a dangerous shift. Even though the so-called regulations were made in the name of net neutrality, in practice they’re a perversion of what Internet experts mean when they talk about the subject.

The ruling is actually just a confirmation of a decision made by then-FCC chairman Michael Powell. He gave it a grandiose title like “the Four Freedoms,” and declared that Internet users had the right to use lawful software and services, access their choice of content, use whatever devices they like, and get meaningful information about how their ISP works.

The problem was, and still is, that the FCC is either continuously stuck in the dark ages, or willing to pretend they are when it’s politically convenient. Powell and others contended that, for some reason, wireless networks like 3G and Wi-Fi weren’t similar enough to a landline to deserve equal protection. So if you access the Internet via a regular computer terminal, you’ve got more rights than if you use a smart phone or similar device.

The new FCC regulations that have already been applauded heavily by telecom giants like Comcast are generally little more than an extension of these rules made official. ISPs are now forbidden from blocking access to lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, but wireless is still regarded as a slightly different ball game.

So, for example, they can’t block Skype because it keeps you from using their phone service, but they can still block file-sharing transfers. Also, cable and DSL companies can’t “unreasonably” block online services or websites. What’s considered reasonable? Only the FCC knows, and they sure aren’t telling.

The really troubling part about the new regulations is that it also opens up a doorway to a “tiered” Internet, where users pay extra for access to certain content or types of media, or what amounts to an Internet “fast lane” and “slow lane.” Want to watch a video in the slow lane? Watch out, you might get charged extra for it. And if you do, it’ll be time to kiss the idea of one, open Internet goodbye.

The argument that “the Internet is fine” and doesn’t need our help doesn’t take in to account how much technology has changed since the Internet was invented. It used to be fine when net neutrality was just the way the Internet worked. But keeping the Internet the way it has been means making sure the Internet functions openly, as it has been since its inception. And that means enforcing net neutrality.

Times change, and if we don’t embrace that, the only thing we can be sure of is that it will be embraced by those who have something to gain and the means to make it happen. And they won’t be looking out for our interests.

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