Barack Obama, John McCain and Net Neutrality

BlogHer Original Post

Change is coming. In fact, if you look over the past 15 years it's already here: the Internet. What it is now, with blogs and social networks, software-as-a-service and 'net-enabled applications, bears scant resemblance to what it was like in 1995. Think about how much it has changed just since you got on the net. No question: the Internet is evolving faster and faster. Do we know what it will look like in 15 years? Ten years? A year from now?

No. The Internet is changing too fast too fast.

Why Net Neutrality is important

The phrase "Net Neutrality" itself is unfortunate because, alliteration aside, it doesn't really have punch, but it's very important. Liza Sabater describes it as "digital civil rights." It's a clear concept when you talk about governmental control of the Internet. China, with the collaboration of its state-run ISPs and American search engine companies, has already demonstrated that control and censorship of the Internet is already possible.

Alistair Croll points out that ISPs have increasing capability to control what users can access:

There are a lot of bad things on the Internet: spam, child porn, malware, phishing and so on. Until recently, it’s been up to people to protect themselves, using security software or web site blocking. Lately, however, governments and legislators have been calling for service providers to limit where users can go, both to stop criminal activity and to protect naïve surfers from straying onto malicious sites. Recent advances in DNS may soon let carriers comply with such regulations.

In June, three major carriers agreed to purge child pornography hosted on servers their customers operate in their data centers. Having signed New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s Internet code of conduct, every major U.S. ISP has also agreed to eliminate access to certain newsgroups. It’s not just in the U.S., either: Australia’s hotly debated Plan for Cyber Safety blocks content that isn’t child-friendly. Subscribers can opt out, but they’ll still be blocked from content the government deems illegal.

What about in cases of control and censorship of Internet content by corporations for non-government-manded reasons?

Claire, of the Hawaii LRB Library, gives a thumbnail:

Network neutrality is generally the concept of ensuring "unfettered access to the Internet" by regulating owners of Internet networks. CRS notes that the two most common discriminatory actions against net neutrality are "the network providers’ ability to control access to and the pricing of broadband facilities, and the incentive to favor network-owned content, thereby placing unaffiliated content providers at a competitive disadvantage."

It's this latter part -- "incentive to favor network-owned content, thereby placing unaffiliated content providers at a competitive disadvantage" -- that explains the concern of every website owner who does not control a piece of the Internet backbone.

Alice Marshall puts it in the context of the tech economy:

I am very concerned that the whole Web 2.0 crowd and the entire tech community are way too complacent about net neutrality. It is true that articles about net neutrality are regularly featured on Slashdot's front page and tech publications have done some great reporting on this, but I think too many people take the point-to-point architecture of the Web for granted and don't realize the entire basis of their business model could be destroyed.

QU writes:

Just what would be left if in fact corporations were left to create the content we see every day? They may edit and put their own spin on items in order to create a more favorable view for certain topics. When *we* create the Internet, we are able to put our own opinion on things, yes but people are also allowed to create their own opinions after reading multiple ideas from multiple people.

This isn't just about being able to hear political statements by Pearl Jam.

In a post about how "Verizon Wireless plans to tack on an extra 3-cent charge for every SMS message sent by Web information services to any of its mobile subscribers," Erick Shonfeld points out that Net Neutrality is not just about politics' effect on business, but also business' effect on politics:

The other way this could backfire for Verizon is that it could raise some serious Net neutrality issues. If it does not apply this charge evenly across the board, or starts carving out exceptions to do biz dev deals (and Verizon made some indications to Silicon Valley startups it was moving in this direction prior to the rate hike announcement), then it will be giving preferential treatment to one source of information over the other.

What if Verizon were charging the Obama campaign 3 cents per SMS message right now, but cut a deal with the McCain campaign to charge one cent per SMS? That is just a stark example, but you see where this can go. What if it charges the New York Times one rate, and the Wall Street Journal another? It becomes a freedom of speech issue.

The candidates' stances

Recently Slashdot pointed up the issue:

"For all their incessant bickering in the first two presidential debates over conflicts of interest and government regulation, PopMech columnist Glenn Derene is puzzled that the candidates have yet to be challenged on a vital issue directly related to both those topics: Net neutrality. John McCain and Barack Obama have stated elsewhere their opposing views on the issue, with McCain being opposed to Net neutrality and favoring light regulation of the Internet, while Obama is in favor of neutrality and seeks Government involvement. In any case, since there is no standard accepted definition of 'network neutrality,' until the candidates elaborate on their positions (which they both declined to do for this piece, nor anywhere else so far, for that matter), 'both sides can make a credible case that they're the ones defending freedom of innovation and open communication.'"

Here's Barack Obama speaking on Net Neutrality:

I think it's fair to say that John McCain unequivocably opposes Net Neutrality. John McCain has a tech plan, for which Susan Crawford offers up some perspective:

First, here’s the fact: We don’t have a functioning “free market” in online access. John McCain thinks we do. That kind of magical thinking takes real practice.

Instead, we’ve got four or so enormous companies that control most of the country’s access, and they’re probably delighted that McCain is promising not to regulate them.

The “net neutrality” movement is not about “regulating the internet.” That’s twisted.

You can think of the internet as a conversation being had by more than a billion people walking along a sidewalk. Big sidewalk. Net neutrality would require that the sidewalk keep out of the conversation - not limit it, shape it, charge it based on how interesting it is, or butt in. Right now, our sidewalks are in the business of deciding what kinds of conversations can happen, and they’re no longer required by law to just lie down and act like sidewalks. That’s a problem. We’d like the sidewalks, those basic transport elements, to be separate from the conversation.

Just as the power companies can’t dictate what kinds of purposes people use electricity for, the providers of basic general-purpose communications transport shouldn’t be able to dictate how we communicate.

Danny Weizner notes

McCain’s record in promoting innovation on the Internet and in the large information and communications marketplace is terrible. Mostly, he can claim credit for supporting incumbents over innovators and for failing, in his time as Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee to do anything at all to support the innovative and socially beneficial aspects of the Internet.

What about the running mates? leahpeah says:

Biden’s support is ambiguous and I’ll be watching to see how that plays out.

In Wired, Sarah Lai Stirland writes of Biden:

Biden's most-recent reputation in D.C. on telecom issues is more ambiguous, particularly when it comes to net neutrality. Though he ostensibly supported the concept as a presidential candidate during this election cycle, in hearings on Capitol Hill he's been a hesitant supporter for pro net-neutrality legislation.

I don't know if Sarah Palin has said anything about Net Neutrality.

A non-partisan (or bi-partisan) issue?

You might ask why protecting freedom of speech on the Internet has become a partisan issue. Says Techory:

I don’t like to get political on here, but I don’t really see that this is really a political issue, or at least it shouldn’t be one. It really shouldn’t matter what political party you follow, it’s more about getting the most out of the Internet, and not being beholden to your service provider for a certain type of content. This image is an obvious exaggeration, but shows what I mean. This might not matter if there were true competition for internet services, but in many instances there are maybe one or two high speed options in an area (usually phone or cable). If they both happen to do what they please with your traffic, you’re out of luck.

And it's not just about Republicans' opposing Net Neutrality. Democratic New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has been pushing through an aggressive government program that threatens Net Neutrality:

Obviously, stopping child porn is a good goal, but Cuomo's approach actually makes the problem worse and sets a dangerous precedent....

...[A] recent look at the details of Cuomo's highly publicized campaign found that Cuomo clearly exaggerated the extent of the problem for political benefit, forcing ISPs to block all of Usenet, despite 99.9997% of the 3.7 billion available Usenet articles being perfectly legitimate content. But that's not stopping Cuomo. In fact, he's going even further.

He's been sending ISPs a presentation from a company called Brilliant Digital that's offering a "deep packet inspection" system that could scan every file sent across an ISP's network and try to determine if it was child porn. Yes, Cuomo is suggesting that ISPs spy on every single file sent over their network now, 4th Amendment be damned....

...Last week, we wrote about Paul Ohm's suggestion that we should create a stronger privacy law that outlawed deep packet inspection, as that would pretty much stop any attempt to break net neutrality without requiring special net neutrality laws. It's worth noting that such a law would also have the added benefit of making it doubly clear to Cuomo that such a program is quite illegal.

I don't know about you, but all of this sounds a bit scary to me.

It's a public policy issue, and we all should get involved

Do we want corporations, or our governments, restricting what we can get to on the Internet? That seems rather Orwellian ... or perhaps more like cable tv. I certainly do not want my access to the Internet be controlled like the cable companies control what shows are available on tv.

But that's me. Maybe most people really want the net to be more like tv?

Stacey Higgnbotham encourages dialogue:

I am curious to hear what the Pew survey says consumers think of the cloud. I would have guessed they don’t think much about it all, unless it’s bringing rain. I’m also curious as to what Google thinks regulators should focus on when it comes to running pools of virtualized servers. Bandwidth improvements and ensuring Network Neutrality are one obvious issue for cloud purveyors, other regulation that should be talked about is how laws and regulations govern the physical location of certain data. Indeed, one interesting side note to Google’s patent for running data centers on the high seas is the lack of jurisdiction in international waters.

On the consumer side, a fair issue to consider is how consumer content stored in such clouds can be used. Witness the kerfuffle over Google’s terms of service regarding Chrome, which tried to claim the right to use any content uploaded or displayed via the browser. But when storing files and data in a cloud, ownership and usage rights are essential, as are clear policies that lay out how such content might be accessed, tracked and monitored. Another issue is whether or not such data could ever truly be deleted from clouds, as former Facebook users had discovered. Not all of these issues require regulation, but it’s worth educating lawmakers about them in advance of more services being offered via the cloud.

No matter where you stand on this, the question seems to be not only where the candidates stand on Net Neutrality, but how the policies and laws enacted over the coming months and years might end up affecting, or even controlling, our conversations on politics.

Who controls the information pipelines? Will you be able to get to this website a year from now?

BlogHer Tech & Web Contributing Editor Laura Scott blogs at rare pattern and pingVision, and supports Net Neutrality.

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