Monday, March 23, 2009

Everyone Gets a Bonus from Obama's Net Neutrality Plan

Buried deep in President Barack Obama's American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is a line that should bring a smile to your face -- and a scowl to the faces of phone and cable industry lobbyists.

It says that billions of dollars directed to connect more Americans to broadband must be spent on services that meet "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations."

What this really means is the good guys have won one battle in the fight for an open Internet. According to Obama's plan, government must now require that the $4.7 billion in federal grants to build high-speed Internet be spent the right way: on networks that abide by Net Neutrality.

In other words, this money -- your money -- can not be used by powerful companies like AT&T and Comcast to implement plans to "manage," filter or re-route you when you traverse the Web.

They have been angling to do so since it became clear that more people were using the Internet for more than email, ecommerce and search.

No Blank Checks

The good news is that this stimulus money isn't going to be big phone and cable's blank check to do as they please. It comes with strings attached, requiring that all networks built with our money keep control over the Internet in the hands of the people who use it every day -- people like you and me.

AT&T and Verizon can't use our money to invest in content filtering tools like the Deep Packet Inspection software being used by China and Burma to sift through Web traffic. Comcast and Cox Cable can't block file-sharing software or other popular and legal Web applications. None of them can use taxpayer funds to decide what traffic gets priority and what gets shunted to a slower lane.

The only bonus being handed out here is Net Neutrality, a rule that benefits the millions of Americans who rely daily upon the Internet to improve their economic status, better educate their children, connect with friends and family, and participate more fully in our democracy.

A Bid to Undercut Neutrality

But get this: Just as Washington is funneling your tax dollars to build this open Internet, phone and cable company lobbyists are swooping in to rearrange the rules, water down Net Neutrality requirements, and stamp out consumer choice.

They came out into the open during a public meeting Monday in Washington.

"The idea that we should lay additional and unknown regulations on top of the task of the people getting this grant money is, I think, troubling at best," said Jonathan Banks of the U.S. Telecom Association during a meeting at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

James Assey, of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said that Net Neutrality requirements could create "uncertainty" in the marketplace. Chris Guttman-McCabe, speaking on behalf of the largest wireless carriers, said openness rules take away from the central focus of the stimulus package, which is "creating the most jobs and helping reverse the recession."

The Internet's Bedrock Principle

Such misleading statements are designed to make people think we should hand over control of the Internet to the same companies that pay the salaries of these three lobbyists.

But what Banks, Assey and Guttman-McCabe failed to note is that Net Neutrality rules have always governed their profitable clients, such as when AT&T agreed to run a neutral network as a condition of its merger with BellSouth in 2007; or in 2008 when the FCC decided to disallow Comcast from throttling peer-to-peer protocols such as BitTorrent.

The only "uncertainty" in this marketplace would result from giving mighty network providers new powers to fiddle with our content. To do so would undercut the level playing field that has made the Internet the greatest engine for free speech and commerce in history.

Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott just delivered 15,000 letters to the administration demanding that this basic freedom -- the right to connect to anyone, anywhere -- remains the bedrock principle of any new networks built with federal funds.

The voices of Internet users are clear and unequivocal on this, Scott told the agencies in charge of distributing the Internet stimulus. If you want to use our billions, we need to know that your guaranteeing our online freedom in exchange.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Future Begins Thru You

Every now and then comes something that is a perfect expression of what the Internet is about.

The latest, if you haven't already heard, comes via Kutiman, an Israeli Web impresario who mashed and mixed video clips of amateur YouTube musicians to create a near-flawless overture to the Twittering masses.

ThruYOU, his resulting record (if you can call it that), has taken the Web by storm, garnering more than a million YouTube views in the seven days since its release.

That's impressive when you consider its humble beginnings. Kutiman sent an e-mail about the project to just 20 friends. They told their friends about it and ThruYOU took on a life of its own, spreading like a netroots brushfire via Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and blogs.

Track 3
But the ThruYOU sensation is more than a momentary blip on social media's radar.

After seeing ThruYOU yesterday, Larry Lessig, the author of "Remix," the bible of the free-culture generation, wrote: "Watch this, and you'll understand everything and more than what I try to explain in my book."

Jon Newton of added that ThruYOU is "absolutely, 100% guaranteed to inspire artists around the world to produce art which has never been seen before, and never could have been seen without the Internet."

All Bets Are Off

Kutiman, who also goes by the name Ophir Kutiel, has captured the Zeitgeist of the moment - a time when our rapidly evolving Internet culture is toppling old regimes and handing over control of popular information to people like you, me, Kutiman and his YouTube orchestra.

Track 1
What ThruYOU tells us is that all bets are off. The DNA of our media system has mutated so completely that it's only a matter of time before our society changes as well.

In fact, that change is already happening.

In politics, economics, arts and culture, an era of privileged access is giving way to something that's much more decentralized, participatory and personal.

We no longer passively consume media, we actively participate in it. This often means creating content, in whatever form and from whatever sources -- what author Jonathan Zittrain calls "generativity."

We no longer limit our political involvement to television and the polling booth. We organize via Facebook; we "Google" candidates, and we join text-messaging lists and create Twitter hash tags to stay ahead of our issues.

No More 'Mass Media'

This development cuts across our social landscape and enhances core democratic values, empowering more (although not all) members of society. Like the many singers and musicians that make ThruYOU a work of tremendous grace, it prioritizes alternative voices over mainstream pap.

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It's Sir Tim Berners-Lee's end-to-end principle in action. Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web with the understanding that the freedom to connect to anyone, anywhere was the Internet's First Amendment.

This openness, known to many as Net Neutrality, leaves ultimate control over your online experience with you, the user.

Taming the Dinosaurs

Users of the Internet may take Net Neutrality for granted. But this could change if the dinosaurs of old media (namely, phone, cable, recording and film companies) are successful in taming new media that threaten their twentieth-century fiefdoms.

They've talked about filtering content for perceived violations of copyright and have been caught blocking access to popular Web applications that put control over video more firmly in users' hands. They have deployed their lobbyists, lawyers and PR flacks to paint Net Neutrality as cumbersome regulation that will destroy their plans to enhance your Web experience - as if they knew what that was.

Congress will have the opportunity this year to stop old media's latest plans to remake our Internet in their image. Net Neutrality has the support of several key members, the White House and the incoming FCC leadership; it's only a matter of time before legislation makes it to the floor.

These are hopeful signs for Kutiman and the next genius who seizes upon the Internet to take us all to a new level.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Obama's FCC Pick Another Good Sign for Open Media

As anticipated, Julius Genachowski has been tapped by President Barack Obama to head the Federal Communications Commission.

The move is another indication that incoming leadership in Washington will move decisively to protect the free flowing Internet from those seeking to become gatekeepers to new media.

It also fulfills Obama's promise made on the campaign trail to appoint an FCC chair who shares his support for Net Neutrality.

If confirmed by Senate, Genachowski would replace Kevin Martin, who left the agency the day Obama came into office. He brings two decades of experience from both the industry and policy side, having served as a top-executive in IT and venture capital firms and as former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt's chief legal counsel.

Genachowski also anchored the drafting of Obama's comprehensive media policy agenda that promotes fast and neutral Internet connections, and more competitive choices for the consumer.

"It is clear that he understands the importance of open networks and a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition to a robust democracy and a healthy economy," said Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge.

Net Neutrality Momentum

With Genachowski's nomination, the pieces are falling into place for strong Net Neutrality protections under the new administration.

Written into the DNA of President Obama economic stimulus is the requirement that those who build Internet networks (using the nearly $4.7 billion in NTIA grants provided by the legislation) adhere to the nondiscrimination and openness principles at the core of Net Neutrality.

Obama's goals for the FCC
Obama himself pledged to "take a back seat to no one" in his commitment to Net Neutrality. And the administration's technology policies now posted on the White House Web site list Net Neutrality as the top priority.

Also, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) announced last month that he will lead the influential Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology.

Kerry is a longtime supporter of Net Neutrality, who wrote to activists that "Net Neutrality and internet build-out are crucial to building a more modern and fair Information Society."

New v. Old, Open v. Closed

Genachowski will play a central role during a unique time in media history.

Open Internet supporters on the Hill, in the White House and at the FCC are facing off against industry interests who often wield their influence over communications policy to lock down new media innovation and protect their media fiefdoms.

Through a combination of forces -- including remarkable developments in technology, surging user ingenuity, industry turmoil and policy mistakes -- old and new media have arrived at a volatile moment.

It's a conflict that pits new ideas about grassroots and decentralized communications against old ideologies about top-down information control.

The decisions made in the next few years by Genachowski, Obama and their Washington allies will determine the outcome. His appointment should give open Internet supporters confidence that we're on the right track.