Friday, February 29, 2008

In Boston: A Shot Heard 'Round the Internet

Something may have been lost in this week's brief media frenzy over "seat-gate" -- the much discussed incident where Comcast hired people off the street to keep out the public from this Monday's FCC hearing in Boston.

ComcastSleepersComcast's Sleeper Cell
But while Comcast's seat-warmers slept, a collection of Cambridge scholars, Internet advocates, industry leaders, engineers and policymakers nearly all agreed that Internet blocking has serious consequences for each and every one of us.

I say "nearly" because Comcast remains defiant; its executive vice president, David Cohen, continues to insist that "Comcast does not block any Web site, application or Web protocol including peer-to-peer services."

Cohen sets a high bar with that denial, especially since extensive testing has shown exactly the opposite to be true.

"There a single fact here that [Comcast] cannot deny," explained Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu. "Users of the Internet, sought to use an application in a certain way, and they were blocked."

This view was supported later by David Reed of MIT's Media Lab, who had also experimented with popular file-sharing applications and found that Comcast was duping users with forged network transmissions that cut off user connections. "Comcast's secretive attempt to apply non-standard management practices creates serious problems," he said.

No Problem?

Comcast's Cohen said that this was probably just a minor issue at the engineering level and then declared that his engineers just ran a test of BiTorrent and found there to be no blocking, "no problem."

Sound familiar?

For several years now, big phone and cable have claimed that Net Neutrality was "a solution in search of a problem."

But the problem is clear. The phone and cable companies are telling us they're going to discriminate.

The top executives of major telecom companies have stated clearly in the pages of BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that they would like to favor certain content over others.

And they're already doing it. In just the past few months, in addition to Comcast's assault on competing file-sharing applications, Verizon has blocked text messages sent by NARAL Pro-Choice America to its own members, and AT&T is hatching launched plans to filter and inspect all Web traffic for perceived copyright infringements.

Against this backdrop, the Boston hearing will be seen as a call to arms in the struggle over the freedom of the Internet.

Getting Gatekeepers Out of Our Way

It's what my colleague Ben Scott often calls a "clash of civilizations." At stake is whether the Internet will be open, neutral and accessible to all -- or a closed network controlled by a handful of gatekeepers with dreams of monopoly power.

In Boston it became clear to everyone that companies like Comcast seek ultimate control over this most democratic of media and the new economies it will foster.

"Let's bear in mind that the Internet is the communications network that is quickly becoming the backbone for all the other communications networks that Americans use," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in Boston. "In other words, how all of this turns out is a very, very big deal for each and every one of us."

Put into those terms it's probably easier to understand why Net Neutrality is so critical. People need to control their ability to speak out, innovate and spread new ideas without the fear that a company like Comcast, Verizon or AT&T will yank the chord.

In Boston Harvard Law professor and network guru Yochai Benkler put it best: "Once you stop looking through the blinders of people trained in 20th Century business models, the Internet is about people connecting to each other, to chat about the silly and the profound, to create together and to organize, to transact and to tell each other stories about who we are, and how are lives might become."

Professor Benkler added that ISPs must understand that this open, user-driven model is the future of the Internet, "or else get out of the way."

We're the Deciders

That the Boston hearing was marred by Comcast's efforts to stack the crowd in its favor -- leaving concerned citizens out in the cold -- demonstrates again why we can't trust these types of companies with an Internet that is vital to our democracy and prosperity.

Those who should ultimately decide the Internet's future are people like you and me -- everyone who uses the Internet every day and in every way. That's why every citizen needs to get involved right now.

On Capitol Hill, Congressmen Ed Markey and Chip Pickering have introduced the bipartisan "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" (HR 5353) that would establish Net Neutrality protections for the next generation of Internet networks. Supporting this bill is a good place to start.

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