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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Finding a Neutral Corner

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 results.

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, Microsoft, and Google. Also a coalition to "save the Internet" has been formed, with membership as diverse as the Gun Owners of America and the Organic Consumers Association (gun stocks meet Birkenstocks?). The 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.

References


1. Democrats introduce new Net neutrality bill, ComputerWorld, May 2, 2006.
2. Introduction of the Network Neutrality Act of 2006, http://markey.house.gov/, May 2, 2006.
3. Republicans defeat Net neutrality proposal, News.com, April 5, 2006.

 


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