August 17, 2010 | by Christopher Mitchell | Posted on

From the  BitTorrent-Comcast debacle and the FCC’s courtroom conflicts to Google’s talks with Verizon, public awareness around the principles of network neutrality has been on the upswing lately –  and for all the right reasons.

One of Minnesota’s own public figures,  Senator Al Franken,  recently launched an online petition to “stop the corporate media takeover” and defend “the first amendment issue of our time.” Update (8/17 11:00pm): The Uptake has posted an interview with Al Franken titled: “Why Net Nuetrality is Important.”

At a steady speed of around 4,000 electronic signatures per day, over 91,000 people have endorsed the legislators stance over the past three weeks.

Although network neutrality can be easily distracted by partisanship, perhaps it is better viewed through the context of scale and long-term impact.  Economically, for example, massive media conglomerates like Fox News, ABC and Disney (who can afford to pay ISPs to favor their content channels) could obtain crucial advantages over new and innovative startup ventures that lack both the cash and clout necessary to strike deals with ISPs.


Theoretical example of Internet pricing structures

From an education and awareness perspective, imagine a country by which the online services we use and the digital information we discover is not determined naturally, by merit or value, but by corporations and media who represent a set  agenda. In this sense, we need the FCC to ensure that big companies do not use their market power to enable various forms of censorship. Through logical extension, a neutral Internet helps to ensure transparency and accountability in both the private and public sector. This is democracy at the core.

In a properly competitive landscape, one with a multitude of comparable choices, there would be little incentive for an ISP to risk alienating its subscribers by deliberately favoring one connection/application over another or silencing free speech .  But we do not have a competitive landscape in Minnesota under current conditions — and it could get worse.

And no, wireless is not going to solve this – it is too slow and unreliable to compete with cable networks (though the Verizon and Google approach could make it worse by removing incentive to increase the efficiency of cellular technologies) .

For those of us who can understand and appreciate what’s at risk, we should encourage both local legislators and the FCC pursue policies that openly create more broadband competition, not less.  Hundreds of communities have built their own broadband networks, spurring greater competition than the private sector alone creates . More of these networks should be allowed to proliferate.

ISPs like AT&T and Comcast are fighting hard to change the core principle of the Internet because they have a business interest in maintaining, even enhancing their de facto monopolies.   Google and Verizon are now (arguably) attempting to take advantage of the situation, in their own unique way.

As technologists, entrepreneurs, innovators, parents and democratic citizens  — we are all stakeholders in a neutral Internet. As constituents, we have an opportunity to be in control of this matter, as well as an obligation to inform those around us who don’t immediately comprehend the “big picture” ramifications and adverse impact of a compromised Internet ecosystem.

A truly neutral and open Internet (wired or not) is an must. There are two things we can do immediately to take a step in the right direction and support of this worthy cause:

1) Review Senator Franken’s recent remarks around network neutrality. If you generally agree with his position, show support by signing the petition and spreading the word.

2) On Thursday, attend the town hall meeting on the Future of the Internet at South High School. Co-hosted by Free Press, Main Street Project and the Center for Media Justice, this important hearing is an opportunity for those of us outside Washington to share their ideas, experiences and concerns directly with the FCC.  The gathering will feature Minnesota Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie, and two champions of the public interest, FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn.

The debate over the future of the Internet in America is at a critical juncture. On one side are the millions of people who have experienced the positive benefits of such a powerful medium of peer to peer communication. On the other side are the interests of a few well-established corporations and media companies in pursuit of profit and control, above all else.  The decisions that are made today will shape the Internet for decades; whether or not it regresses into an a “pay-for-play” tiered scenario (similar to that of cable TV) is up to each and every one of us.

Christopher Mitchell / Focused on Networks & Policy


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