Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Four Pivotal Internet Issues as the Year Turns 2015

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler with protesters
outside agency headquarters in Washington
The death of the Internet is at hand.

Sound familiar? That’s what Internet pioneer Robert Metcalfe predicted in 1995 when he wrote that spiraling demands on the fledgling network would cause the Internet to “catastrophically collapse” by 1996.

Metcalfe, of course, was dead wrong: The Internet is still chugging along nearly twenty years later, with a predicted 3 billion users by year’s end.

Still, the Internet’s fate feels distinctly uncertain as 2015 begins. Washington is engaged in a furious debate over Net Neutrality, access to affordable broadband services is still considered a luxury for many, while governments here and abroad continue to filter digital communications to spy on everyone, crack down on dissident voices and silence speech.

At stake is whether the Internet remains a democratic, user-powered network — or falls under the control of a few powerful entities.

Here are the four Internet issues that played leading roles in the United States in 2014, and which will remain at center stage as the New Year begins:

1. Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is the principle that keeps control over your clicks in the hands of you, the Internet user. It’s an idea that was baked into the DNA of the Internet at its inception; many of us take our freedom to connect with any website person or service online for granted. In a neutral network, users control their experience without their Internet service providers interfering, filtering, or censoring.

But this foundation-shaking openness has fallen under attack from the phone and cable companies that control access in the United States. In a court decision in January, Verizon successfully challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to protect Net Neutrality, setting in motion a year-long effort to restore the agency’s authority.

Four million Americans, including President Barack Obama, have contacted the FCC, with the overwhelming majority demanding real Net Neutrality protections. The agency can heed their advice by reclassifying Internet access under the common carriage rules outlined in Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

Watch for a decision on the matter as early as January 2015. Momentum is now swinging in favor of keeping the Internet open under Title II — thanks in large part to the forceful public response and a president who has, finally, made good on an earlier promise to protect Net Neutrality.

2. Consolidation

The Internet is designed to function as a decentralized network — meaning that control over information doesn’t fall into the hands of a few gatekeepers, but instead rests with everyone who goes online by whatever means.

Removing central command has opened the network to diverse voices. It’s amplified the concerns of protesters from Ferguson to Hong Kong, given underrepresented communities a platform, and allowed startup businesses to reach millions of new customers.

While choice of content has flourished, choice among Internet-access providers has not: Too many communities can choose from only one or two, most likely a dominant phone or cable company. We need policies that will foster more competition than this, which in turn would lower costs, improve services, and ensure that no single company gains too much control over content.

In 2014, Comcast and AT&T attempted to consolidate their control over all-things-Internet. Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, wants to gobble up the second largest, Time Warner Cable. If regulators approve the Comcast merger, the company would become the only traditional cable provider available to nearly two-thirds of Americans.

Meanwhile, AT&T wants is willing to spend up to $70 billion to take over DirecTV. For that amount of money, the phone giant could wire half of the country with fiber. But AT&T would much rather knock out a competitor than give customers the choices they desire.

It’s up to the FCC and the Justice Department to block these mergers, which would create colossal, monopoly-minded behemoths. The government’s blessing of these deals would teleport us back to a time when just a few media moguls controlled most public discourse. Going back to the future is never a good thing for the Internet.

3. Online Privacy

In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed mass spying programs that violate our civil liberties. This wholesale invasion of privacy has chilled free expression online.

There were signs of hope that 2014 would bring new legislation to rein in some of the government snooping powers. The USA Freedom Act, while imperfect, would have curtailed the NSA’s bulk collection of our phone records and required more oversight and transparency of its surveillance programs.

The Senate, however, voted not to consider the bill in November. And there are few signs that the new Congress will take up legislation to bind the prying hands of the NSA, leaving everyone at the mercy of an agency with a voracious appetite for data.

4. Community Networks

With big Internet providers like Comcast gaining notoriety for dismal customer service, cities have decided to treat access as an essential service they can provide their citizens. Municipal broadband networks have gained traction everywhere from New York City to Monmouth, Oregon.

It’s easy to see why: The big providers often refuse to build networks in low-income or rural communities where potential customers can’t afford to pay their sky-high rates.

The rise of homegrown Internet infrastructure has prompted industry lobbyists to introduce state-level legislation to smother such efforts. There are at least 20 such statutes on the books. But in June, the FCC stepped in with a plan to preempt these state laws, giving communities the support they need to affordably connect more people.

This fight will gain a national profile in 2015 as more cities and advocates band together to build a bulwark against the powerful lobbying machine of phone and cable companies.

If you value your rights to connect and communicate, keep an eye on these four issues as 2015 gets underway. To ensure an Internet that’s open, fast, secure, and affordable, contact the FCC, call your members of Congress, and support efforts to build a network that works for everyone, and not just the few.

- A version of this commentary was originally published by Other Words.

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