BlogHer, Verizon, Google, and the Future of the Internet, or Why You Should Care About Network Neutrality

BlogHer Original Post

Unless you scrupulously avoid reading news sites on the Internet, you've probably heard that Google and Verizon made a big announcement last week, having something to do with "Net Neutrality." And unless you are a policy wonk or a tech-geek, or you saw one of the really inflammatory headlines, your eyes probably glazed over and you moved on to the next story.

Please read this one. Net Neutrality is incredibly important, and this Google-Verizon proposal is bad for the future of the Internet.

In a nutshell, the idea of "Net Neutrality" is that the big companies that own the wires or spectrum through which Internet content gets to us -- cable companies, DSL, and increasingly, the companies who sell us Smart Phones -- should have to treat all of the itty bitty bits ("packets") of information the same way. For example, Time Warner Cable would not be able to make a deal with Yahoo! to provide their search results faster than Google's, or make YouTube videos load more slowly than video clips on Flickr.

Until last week, Google has always been on the same side as content producers -- that's us, all of the small business web sites, bloggers, tweeters, silly video uploaders, MySpace musicians, etc.

Here's the extremely boiled down version of what Google and Verizon have asked the FCC to approve:

  • For the current version of the wired Internet, keep everything neutral.
  • Let the big cable/telephone companies build a super-duper fast parallel Internet backbone, using wires, and charge companies to provide content using it. (Who pays for that extra cost? Either advertisers or consumers.)
  • Let wireless companies like Verizon decide which packets of information to prioritize, sell higher speeds to content providers who want them, and generally write their own rules.

That third item is the real problem, although #2 is no great shakes.

Raise your hand if you think wireless access and smart phones are over.

Really. The future of Internet access is in wireless. It requires smaller infrastructure investments that are easier to upgrade than rolls of fiber optic cable.

We aren't all using wireless broadband Internet access right now, just as we weren't all on high speed connections even 5 years ago, but many people are, and the numbers are growing dramatically. New apps for smart phones let us stream podcasts, television shows, movies, and even live video conversations. AT&T  found the iPhone users consuming so much bandwidth that they changed their contracts to stop offering unlimited data plans.

Who can afford to pay the wireless phone companies to send out their content first, most quickly, and most beautifully? Is it mainstream media companies? Or innovative startups? Who can afford to pay the access companies to slow down packets coming from their competition? Should BlogHer and other smaller content providers have to pay Verizon and AT&T and Sprint and US Cellular and Cricket and Time Warner Cable and Comcast and ... -- you get the idea -- just to make sure that they aren't at a competitive disadvantage?

Where will these costs be borne? A YouTube or MySpace could charge people to upload files at or above a certain size. A BlogHer Ad Network or Federated Media could reduce the ratio of ad revenue shared with bloggers. Or a blogger could simply accept the fact of being a slow-loading site or one with minimal multimedia offerings.

There are issues beyond the cost, and who will ultimately pay it.

Binary code and text (digitally generated)


When we develop and broadly deploy technology that is capable of treating Internet information packets differently, based on some combination of factors including type of data and point of origin, it will become easier and easier to misuse that technology.

Current web filtering technology is extremely effective at blocking pornographic material, with relatively little overblocking of non-pornographic sexual content. But it is pretty bad at automatically distinguishing between acceptable and inappropriate content in other contexts. Packet based filtering could add another layer of heavy-handed content blocking.

We have already seen how repressive regimes deal with criticism online, access to local political information, and to companies who decline to provide those governments with complete access to consumer information.

What if those governments could easily slow or eliminate certain types of data, like cell phone videos of protesters being beaten by police? Or data from certain other locations, like opposition party strongholds, or the cell phones of their leaders?

We've also seen Verizon itself making content-based decisions about what text messages to deliver. In September 2007, Verizon Wireless rejected a request from NARAL that Verizon customers be permitted to sign up for cell phone text action alerts from NARAL. This decision was met with outrage from customers and advocacy groups alike, and was almost immediately reversed.

NARAL is a large and reasonably sophisticated organization, capable of mobilizing supporters to pressure Verizon into reversing the decision to censor their text messages. What if the rejection was to a smaller organization, a fringe political party, or a candidate with views outside of the mainstream? There would have been less publicity, and less pressure to reverse the decision to censor.

Both Verizon's rejection and reversal clearly demonstrate what is possible without legislation mandating Net Neutrality. Verizon, as a private company, would not be violating the First Amendment by choosing to silence pro-choice text messages. The First Amendment only prohibits the government from censoring online content -- and in an era where companies like Verizon and other Internet access providers control so much of how we communicate, only the government can prevent private censorship. The way to do that is to legislate Net Neutrality.

More Opinions:

The Wall Street Journal

Common Cause

Center for Democracy & Technology

Public Knowledge

Jerry Brito Report (abstract)

Author Liza Barry-Kessler also blogs at LizaWasHere (personal) and Privacy Counsel LLC (professional).

Comments

In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.