Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Internets are more equal than others, Or not.: Net Neutrality and its impact on Information Access

One of the great things about the Internet, as opposed to many other forms of communication, is that everyone's voice is supposedly equal. There is a vast difference between protesting in front of your town hall and erecting a protest blog, for example. When you protest in front of your town hall (legally) you need a permit, you're only going to be out there until it gets dark, you need to arrange a time that all of your buddies can show up with signs, you need to MAKE signs, if it rains you're probably going to leave early, and the only people who are going to be around the Town Hall during that short period are going to see your protest. If you set up a blog, espousing your frustration for the level of fluoride in the Municipal Water System your blog is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to everyone who has access to the Internet (provided their firewall doesn't determine you to be a menace) which can potentially be everyone in your town. The Internet can be a great equalizer in this way.

As great as this sounds, the truth of the matter is not all websites are treated in an equal manner. The impact of Advertising and Online Searching programming aside, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) of individual websites can affect the availability of certain sites. If a website is eating up lots of bandwidth due to high traffic, lots of media uploads and other applications the ISPs can charge the user more, slow the download time of sites or block the offending applications on the site. This can severely damage access to information on sites run by people who can't afford a sudden price hike, particularly Libraries, non-profit organizations and educational centers with pitiful IT budgets.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed on Monday (September 21, 2009) that they are going to start looking into more regulations on ISPs that will insure that they treat all web traffic equally. The so-called "net neutrality" proposal is supported by web application providers (like Google, Craigslist and Microsoft) who feel that their content is being unfairly blocked by ISPs because they use too much bandwidth.

As it is, there are few standards to determine which applications are menaces that the ISPs should be blocking. In the void of these standards the ISPs decided which apps were blocked, this included companies blocking Internet applications that compete with a service they provide such as Internet Voice calls. You can see where a conflict of business interests could impede with the access of information and services.

The FCC proposed that they will add two new rules to their "Four Freedoms" principals. The original Four Freedoms are as follows:

  1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.

  2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.

  3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.

  4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

    Monday's additions:

  5. Broadband providers cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, favor certain content or applications over others and cannot "disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider."

  6. Broadband providers must be transparent about the service they are providing and how they are running their networks.

    (Via PC World)
The intent of the FCC is to prevent ISPs from favoring certain application creators that use less bandwidth or don't provide competing services. They also want to be sure that ISPs cannot suddenly hike their prices to their customers when they use lots of bandwidth without fully explaining their price scale and their practices. The goal, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is to, "safeguard the free and open Internet." (PC World)

Will these new rules do just that? Its hard to say. Dylan F. Tweney of Wired.net argues that the regulations will actually limit access instead of expanding it. He states that with these regulations, ISPs could no longer offer "all-you-can-eat, flat-rate Internet access" and would rather need to set pay-per bandwidth for all of their customers. This would mean that some entities who were saving money by getting the unlimited access package would have to pay for a higher priced, higher bandwidth service to accommodate their needs. While the FCC regulations would force the ISPs to be upfront about how much they will charge for what level of service, the prices will most likely go up. Milton Freedman must be spinning in his grave at these developments.

So is greater Internet freedom worth the inevitable price hike for access? It can be argued both ways. While the freedom is greater for those who can afford it, those who can't afford the increase in price will be limited. Someone who can't afford 100 dollars a month for high bandwidth use may have to use a lower bandwidth service, which will limit which sites they can visit and what information they can view. How about organizations that provide Internet Access to the public, like Public Libraries? Will they be able to afford all of the bandwidth that their thousands of patrons use every month? With Library budgets ever shrinking something may have to give, which will limit both the information Libraries can host and the access to information to patrons who can't afford either a computer or even the cheapest Internet service.

Because of these issues, the FCC and other government entities should keep Libraries and other Non-Profit Organizations in mind when developing these regulations. If their intentions are noble, they should keep in mind what Free and Open Internet really means as an ability to access information.

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