Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
The Internet never ceases to surprise
me. It has grown to be such an international resource, that we take
for granted we can access web pages published in Moscow Idaho as
easily as Moscow Russia. This was illustrated when, in looking for
quotes about the role of free information in a free society, I
stumbled across a long list published at
http://www.democracy.ru/english/quotes.php. In case you hadn't
noticed, that's democracy.ru,
a site devoted to promoting democracy in Russia.
A couple of my favorites from that site include, "Whenever the people
are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,"
attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and "It is the mark of an educated
mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,"
attributed to Aristotle. Another is, "A free society is one where it
is safe to be unpopular," attributed to Adlai Stevenson. These remind
us that free access to a variety of ideas forms one basis for an open
and democratic society.
As we increasingly rely on the Internet for sources of information,
the idea that we have free access to a variety of ideas becomes
increasingly important. It's also important to be able to discern any
bias or attribution of a particular piece of information. This has
become standard practice in news print publications, with
advertisements being identified as such especially if they appear in
the form of news stories. Google has extended this
practice to its
online search pages, by distinguishing between search results that are
paid advertisements and those which are regular Internet search
Recently, the notion of neutrality on the Internet has been
highlighted by some activity in the U.S. Congress. At the end of
April, an amendment to a U.S. House telecommunications bill, proposed
by several Democratic congressmen, was defeated by a vote in the
House Energy and Commerce Committee. The amendment would have
prevented Internet bandwidth providers from "charging Web sites for
faster data transmission or blocking their online competitors' content
and services."1 A bill with similar
provisions was previously
introduced in the Senate by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. On May 2,
Representative Ed Markey
introduced a free-standing net neutrality bill in the U.S. House.
According to Representative Markey's
web site, executives from SBC (now AT&T), Bell South, and Verizon
have made statements indicating that their companies would "give
certain Web sites priority treatment in reaching computer users."2
To understand why this is now an issue, you need to look back to a
ruling by the Supreme court in June of 2005. In what was called
the "Brand X" case, the court ruled that cable Internet providers did
not have to give equal access to their broadband infrastructure to
independent service providers. This means that cable companies can
limit web page and e-mail services to their own sources, and
discourage (by cost) or prevent companies like EarthLink or Brand X
from having access to their customers.
In August of 2005, the FCC
reclassified DSL services as information services rather than
telecommunications services, effectively exempting those broadband
service providers from the common carrier rules that would require
them to share their infrastructure. This increased ability of
broadband providers to control access, has caused concern among a
number of companies who depend upon that access to reach their
customers, including Amazon.com,
Google. Also a coalition to "save
the Internet" has been formed, with membership as diverse as the
Gun Owners of America and the
Association (gun stocks meet
battle of heavyweights has been joined and the outcome has yet to be
determined. By one measure, the broadband service companies have an
edge. According to a CNet article, "AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and
Verizon spent $230.9 million on politicians from 1998 until the
present, while Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo spent only a
combined $71.2 million."3
It seems as if we live in the irony age, so it should not be
surprising that AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South were just
revealed to have provided (without any warrant) millions of U.S.
citizens' phone calling records to the U.S. National Security Agency.
Only Qwest refused the NSA's request for the records. This raises the
question, in whose interest are these companies operating and is it
possible anymore to distinguish U.S. Industry from U.S. Government? Is
it industry's right to control its capital without government
interference or should government guard the rights of its citizens?
Would there be an Internet industry if government (i.e. tax paying
citizens) hadn't funded its development?
I close with a couple more quotes from that Russian web site:
"A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his
government." - Edward Abbey
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary
safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin
In the irony age, there are more questions than answers.
Democrats introduce new Net neutrality bill,
ComputerWorld, May 2, 2006.
Introduction of the Network Neutrality Act of 2006,
http://markey.house.gov/, May 2, 2006.
defeat Net neutrality proposal, News.com, April 5, 2006.
Return to top