Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Heat is on an Open Internet

For an excellent perspective on Net Neutrality, read Saturday's New York Times op-ed by OK Go guitarist Damian Kulash.

OK Go Goes to Washington

Kulash, who recently spent time on the Hill with bandmate Andy Ross, explains the central conflict over an open or closed Internet.

"At root there’s a pretty simple question," he writes. "How much control should network operators be allowed to have over the information on their lines?"

More than Censorship

Kulash points to recent events where operators have crossed the line into gatekeeping.

In addition to Comcast's assault on file-sharing applications, Verizon has blocked text messages sent by NARAL Pro-Choice America to its members, and AT&T, which has censored Pearl Jam concert Webcasts, is now hatching plans to filter and inspect all Web traffic for perceived copyright infringements.

"When the network operators pull these stunts, there is generally widespread outrage," Kulash writes. "But outright censorship and obstruction of access are only one part of the issue, and they represent the lesser threat, in the long run. What we should worry about more is not what’s kept from us today, but what will be built (or not built) in the years to come."

To allow these companies to slowly build a system of gatekeepers into the network is the real and present threat, he writes.

"Exactly," Internet guru David Isenberg said in response to Kulash's comment. "Outright censorship is way too visible for them to get away with. Creeping proactive censorship built into a new infrastructure is a much harder story to tell. And a much bigger danger."

Boiling the Frog

It's analogous to "boiling the frog," according to Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge.

The frog metaphor goes something like this: "If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog in warm water, and gradually raise the temperature, it will become acclimated, until it becomes cooked."

Through endless lobbying and their own meddling with the pipes, phone and cable companies have been slowly shifting the way the Internet operates, bringing it into line with their profit plans.

Over time, these incremental shifts in policy and perception amount to radical and harmful changes to an Internet that has fostered free speech, economic innovation and opened governments to public scrutiny.

The Heat is On

We have now arrived at the boiling point for the modern Internet. It's time Americans became more involved with communications policy decisions being made in their name, but not necessarily with their consent.

Congress is considering a bill -- the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" -- and the Federal Communications Commission weighing new rules on network gatekeeping at this very moment. Both of these processes are open to public input.

As Kulash put it today:
The telephone company doesn’t get to decide what we discuss over our phone lines. It would be absurd to let the handful of companies who connect us to the Internet determine what we can do online. Congress needs to establish basic ground rules for an open Internet, just as common carriage laws did for the phone system.

1 comment:

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