Net Neutrality: A Basic Right

The New Year is upon us, and I still can't stop running dystopian Net neutrality scenarios through my head. Maybe that's because -- in the wake of the FCC's sorry compromise, ironically named the Open Internet Order -- I keep encountering confused, misinformed coverage of the issue. You can see the effects in polls like this one from Rasmussen. But don't blame the respondents; blame the questions they were asked.

The questions in the Rasmussen poll could have been lifted from The Onion. They're not about an open Internet; the people responding just think they are. Here's a sample: "What is the best way to protect those who use the Internet -- more government regulation or more free market competition?" Whoever came up with loaded questions like these knows exactly why they're worded that way.

[ See Paul Venezia's full analysis of the FCC's Open Internet Order. | Also on InfoWorld: Read Paul's classic open letter to the enemies of Net neutrality. ]

Those who crave a closed Internet are using the boogeyman of government oppression to sway public opinion, while openly planning to oppress that very same public. They're using the arguments for Net neutrality to drum up opposition against it -- and it may be working.

A call to arms for Net neutrality
As I noted in my Dec. 21 post, the FCC's Open Internet Order is a bad omen for Net neutrality. In response, we need to push much harder in the opposite direction. We must work toward establishing unfettered Internet access as a right similar in status to that of First Amendment free speech. After all, the Internet is the conduit through which free speech is and will be heard for the forseeable future. If we allow corporations to control access to that speech, it might as well not exist.

Look at the cautionary example of television. It used to be that you purchased a TV once and the signals you received flowed freely through the air. This is still true, but over-the-air TV is not anywhere near as common as cable, satellite, or fiber-based television. The majority of Americans pay not only for their televisions, but also for access to the content unavailable over the air -- content produced by an increasingly small number of creators.

Today's Internet delivery system resembles that of cable or satellite TV: You pay for the client device and the connection, and there are no practical free alternatives. But there's one enormous difference: a virtually unlimited number of content creators. The Internet cannot possibly be controlled like cable television, but tiered service plans could make it difficult to access content from anyone except well-heeled providers.

This is the crux of Net neutrality. Soon, all media will go through the same high-bandwidth pipes. That even applies to today's print newspapers and magazines. Once they go fully digital, there will be vanishingly few ways to access that content without an Internet subscription and a computer.

If ISPs are able to restrict access in whole or in part to information sources anywhere on the Internet, they are effectively blocking free speech. They are inserting themselves into the distribution of news and information -- as hijackers. Never mind the nefarious games carriers will play in order to fill their coffers by fleecing both their customers and the content providers in the process.

The carrier in the middle
Imagine if you took a taxi to your neighborhood store to buy a newspaper, and just before you got there, the driver demanded an extra $5 to let you buy that newspaper. He isn't working for the newsstand; he just determined that you were buying a newspaper and wanted extra money. You already paid for the ride, and you'll pay for the newspaper, but he wants some, too.

Then he whips out a list showing that above and beyond the normal taxi fare, you'll have to pay $6 if you buy a pie at the local pizza joint; $10 if you have the temerity to go to the department store; and $20 if you go to the movie theater. He isn't providing any extra services beyond the ride; he's just extorting cash from you because he thinks he can. And in your neck of the woods, that taxi service is a monopoly -- you have no other choice.

This is what the ISPs want in both the wired and wireless Internet worlds. If we let it happen, we'll get exactly what we deserve: all our information spoon-fed to us by faceless corporations that have nothing to do with anything other than the fact that they think they can.

We need to make access to information on the Internet a basic human right; otherwise, the rights we've enjoyed for centuries will melt away, buried under miraculous technology controlled by robber barons with dollar signs dancing in their heads.

This story, "Demand Net neutrality as a basic right," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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