Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit in my headline. Of course I care about net neutrality, but not in the same way that many supporters of it do. Net neutrality, of course, is in the news today because of rules endorsed by U.S. regulators yesterday.
Net neutrality, in a nutshell, generally boils down to preserving the internet as a medium for free and open expression and innovation. This openness is under a growing threat from the companies who own the networks on which the internet exists, who would like to see certain uses that compete with their own products limited and ultimately blocked.
A couple of good examples include Skype, which allows people to make free phone calls, and Netflix, which allows for unlimited movie watching online for a small monthly fee. Phone and cable companies, respectively, in their heart of hearts would like to see these services shut down because they’re eating their lunches. The only reason such services, and other internet businesses including Google, Amazon and eBay, have arisen is because there has generally been an unspoken neutrality – despite occasional issues – in providing internet services so far. The phone and cable companies have also needed these internet businesses in order to sell internet access; after all, nobody would buy a monthly subscription if there was nothing to do online.
Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission issued its proposed rules for how to ensure that net neutrality can be maintained, and just about every side in the debate found something to complain about. Whether the proposals ever make it into law is a good question, as is whether they will actually prevent the sorts of abuses advocates are expecting. A good round-up of reaction can be found here.
I was very involved in reporting on net neutrality in Canada and ultimately I came to the conclusion that, on both sides of the border, it’s pretty much a lost cause, simply because the telecom companies’ lobbyists are just too powerful. Not only do they exert incredible influence on government officials and regulators, they have also shown themselves capable of convincing even their staunchest opponents to see things their way. You’d think Skype would have an awful lot to lose by not having net neutrality rules apply to the wireless internet, yet even they sounded somewhat supportive of yesterday’s proposals. That’s about as non-sensical as African-Americans voting for Republicans.
But, believe it or not, the whole situation isn’t really that dire. As anyone with even a passing interest in technology can attest to, there is a strong and demonstrated need for net neutrality – or the need for what the forefathers of the internet call “innovation without permission.” If that’s not something that’s going to be provided and protected on the existing internet, well then we’ll just go and create our own damn internet, thank you very much.
It’s something that piracy proponents touched on a few weeks ago when mainstream businesses started pulling their support for WikiLeaks, with the suggestion of a “shadow internet.” Indeed, I’ve been expecting for some time that some sort of “Internet 2” will arise in light of net neutrality violations and other access abuse (like high prices) by service providers.
I’m not bonkers – others believe this is going to happen too, and there are several ways in which it could. Bill St. Arnaud, a green IT consultant in Ottawa who used to be part of the CANARIE research network, in his tech predictions for 2011 says universities may build a competing internet, just like they built the first one: “Given the sordid abuses of the incumbents, and their historical role in the creation of the Internet, [research and education] networks will play a greater role in defining and protecting an internet for the rest of us.”
The other likelihood is that more forward-thinking countries will force their governments to build networks, like what is happening in Australia with the National Broadband Network. Such networks – although intended to be connected to the main internet – could be cordoned off into their own self-contained ecosystems and kept free from abuse.
In both cases, the networks wouldn’t be owned by phone and cable companies and, if they were built with the public good in mind, corporations could in fact be kept off of them entirely. The sort of innovation that would create the next Google or Skype would thereby be free to continue. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the main internet will evolve into AOL, an uninteresting over-corporatized wasteland that nobody wants to go to, while the alternative networks is where people like you and me will hang out.
The bottom line is, if the telecom lobbyists want to stagnate the internet so badly, let them. Rather than trying to fight an insurmountable battle against them, let’s instead concentrate our efforts on setting up our own networks. Then we keep those who would harm them the hell away from them.
(Image courtesy Art Dept. Chronicles)