CEI Wants to Your ISP to Censor Your Net Sessions

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I'm waiting for my blood pressure to settle as I read this gem in my Inbox:

Banning proprietary business models is just the opposite of true 'openness.'

In other words, proprietary means more open, and open means closed.

That's because in the alternative universe where down is up and cleaner air kills people, you'll have maximum choice when just a handful of companies gain the right to limit your options.

Huh?

That's the basic reasoning behind the Competitive Enterprise Institute's plea to allow your Internet service provider to decide what you can and can't see when you fire up your browser. Sort of like China, but instead of a repressive government censoring your Internet, it'd be your ISP. And how your ISP decides who can and can't appear on your screen would be entirely up to them.

Maybe it would just a matter of money, not ideology. In that case, prepare for situations like Verizon's television customers in the New York metro area, who can't get popular cable news channel MSNBC since a competitor locked in an exclusive deal; or like Time Warner customers, who lost cable standby HGTV and the Food Network, and were in danger of losing the Simpsons, American Idol and other Fox shows. Let alone having access to the countless smaller voices that make up today's World Wide Web but would be able to pay to play. The little food blog that morphed into Julie and Julia? Not available if an ISP required fees to be carried.

Or maybe it would be a matter of politics, where a right- or left-leaning magnate buys up a major player in order to block what they don't like. Sure, cable providers can do that, but so far haven't, partly because even in the relatively fractured world of cable television vs. broadcast, there are only a few dozen stations that really matter -- and enough consumer pressure so that popular stations are less likely to disappear. On the Web, local community sites may have passionate but small followings -- an audience that's unlikely to make a dent in the decisions of a nationwide ISP.

Relatively unbridled markets are fine where they make sense. But that's because the conditions in markets like Internet applications are right: customer choice, market transparency and private funding (as opposed to, say, banks that take government bailout money and government-backed deposit insurance, but still think they have the right to issue unfettered "free market" executive bonuses). Toss in some ease of market entry to help prevent predatory/monopolistic behavior, and you're likely to have yourself a capitalism winner.

In the early days of the Net, you could make the case for allowing the market to manage ISP competition. My first Internet service provider came from a local guy running a spare server out of his house. But those were the days of dial-up and 300 baud, neither of which involved a serious capital investment. That's not the case in the era of broadband, where it takes significant capital to be a player and many communities are fortunate to have even a single high-speed option.

There wouldn't be an Internet without years of initial public funding. I don't think any capitalism fan can complain about the private fortunes that have been leveraged off of that government program. Preserving the open legacy of that network - very much in the public interest - isn't all that much to ask of the corporate world in return. That's what the debate over that eye-glazing term "Net neutrality" is really about.

Yes, ISPs have the right to deal with spam and exceptionally heavy bandwidth usage (I'm not opposed to fee structures that charge a premium for heavy streaming, for example). But filtering my content? No. An open Internet isn't only a great way to ensure democracy, by allowing all voices to have a chance of being heard. It's also an excellent way of preserving consumer choice, by letting any and all businesses, large and small, ply their wares on the Web. And shouldn't that ultimately be the goal of a free market?

This story, "CEI Wants to Your ISP to Censor Your Net Sessions" was originally published by Computerworld.

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