Net neutrality is a free speech issue

June 1, 2006 | Leave a comment

You may have read about ‘net neutrality’ in the papers recently, or maybe seen it on TV. At first glance it seems like a simple business issue: telecommunications providers, who own the cables and data links that form the Internet backbone, want to be able to prioritise data transmissions in exchange for money. For example, if CNN.com wants to be a priority website, they might lay down a fee and suddenly find their transfer times faster than (say) BBCnews.com. Of course, BBCnews.com might then also pay for priority access, as might their competitors, until every commercial news website has a paid-for faster link.

Except, of course, the independent news websites: Indymedia and Alternet on the left, WorldNetDaily and so on on the right. They’d be stuck with a slower connection; perhaps even an artificially slower connection. The upshot would be that to get their news, the Internet-reading public would likely go to the same providers who write their newspapers and give them the news they see on the TV. The media neutrality the Internet affords – beyond, of course, the existing brand loyalty users have to these providers thanks to their exposure in the outside world – would be obliterated, and the network would become just another way for the same companies to push the same content.

This doesn’t just extend to the Web: take Skype, for example. The phone companies are deeply worried about the implications of free, peer to peer voice over IP. It terrifies them. So what if they could create their own, paid VoIP service, and make sure these calls have priority over other VoIP networks? Their network would sound better, whereas the fidelity and reliability of Skype calls could decrease.

However, it doesn’t end here. Let’s look beyond simple commerce for a moment.

Allowing the carriers to both allow for tiered Internet access and control what has priority and what doesn’t has some profound implications for free speech. Protecting profits is one thing, but what if a particular school of political thought or trend in ideas is deemed bad for business? Can the carriers then decide to deprioritise access to views they disagree with? In some ways this is an extension of the independent media issue, but it extends all the way to democracy itself.

It’s wrong to consider the web as being a great democratiser – 40% of the people in the world don’t have sanitation facilities, let alone broadband Internet – but it has the potential to be. With a tiered Internet, that potential goes out the window: a medium that has the power to serve multiple viewpoints as equals and allow the user to make up his or her own mind suddenly becomes a medium that serves some ideas better than others. George W Bush famously said “there ought to be limits to freedom” in response to a satirical website erected during his run for president; satire is protected under US law, but imagine if he’d had the power to constrict the information pipe? Or the pipe to Sonoma State University’s Project Censored? This isn’t just a threat to political democracy, but also academic debate and the wider democracy of ideas.

The Internet is going to become even more important as time goes on, and it’s perhaps because this is such a far-reaching issue that Congress is now dealing with several bills affecting net neutrality. Predictably, one argues for true neutrality – all information is treated equally – while one does not. Which idea will win out? Call me cynical, but I don’t hold out much confidence that democracy will rule the day.

You can help, particularly if you’re an American citizen: write to your representatives and congresspeople, and let them know exactly how important an issue this is. If you’re European, write to your local and European representatives and let them know how you feel about this. The Internet is global, and the way one network behaves can affect the whole system.

Further reading

Network Neutrality – Wikipedia
Save the Internet.com
Why The Democratic Ethic Of The World Wide Web May Be About To End – New York Times, May 28 2006
Net Neutrality Gains Ground – Red Herring, May 26 2006
BitTorrent: Shedding No Tears – BBC Newsnight, May 26 2006
At SBC, It’s All About “Scale and Scope” – BusinessWeek, November 7 2005

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