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EOS Editorial — Net Neutrality

Is the freedom of the internet in jeopardy?

First, Internet access will be the core telecom service of the future. Not only will essentially everyone in the developed world be connected to the Internet, but more and more applications will migrate to the Internet. In our homes we will use a variety of devices which communicate via the Internet. We will use telephone-like devices to have voice conversations over the Internet. We will use one-way and two-way video devices that communicate through the Internet. We will use many different web-capable and email-capable devices. And certainly we will use important new Internet applications that we cannot yet imagine.

- Charles Brewer
MindSpring's Founder, Chairman and CEO
As Testified to at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
April 13, 1999

Why did I choose to quote my friend Charles Brewer? Perhaps I thought it relevant that during his campaign for "choice in access providers" seven years ago, he accurately summed up today's Internet (his complete testimony is linked at the end of this article and well worth the read). His efforts helped to ensure that you had choice in who serviced your broadband Internet service. Today I have the choice to buy my broadband service from Time Warner, Bell South, or EarthLink. Actually, I can even buy a wireless broadband access card from Verizon (I love my EV-DO card). Thanks Charles.

The fight for competitive broadband access was the predecessor of many fights that will take place over liberties related to the Internet. Charles correctly noted that we will be using the Internet for things like telephone conversations and television (for example, Skype and Slingbox). This has happened because of the competition, collaboration, and innovation that have thrived on the Internet. Even in Africa and undeveloped nations, the Linux-powered One Laptop per Child initiative (http://www.laptop.org) is going to offer children all over the world, despite their geography or economic status, access to the Internet much more quickly than imagined. It's our responsibility to be caretakers of the Internet and offer them the same freedoms that we enjoy when they join the global conversation. The threat we are faced with is the potential loss of Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality (short for network neutrality) is the name given to the principle that all users of the Internet are treated the same. In a neutral network, data is delivered with the same priority, but that level playing field is seriously being threatened. Lawmakers are debating legislation that may affect your options on how you access content and how that content gets delivered. It's up to us to exercise our opinion and to lobby our legislators to protect our interests. If you don't take the initiative to tell them how you feel, this issue could be decided based on the efforts of high-paid lobbyists backed with dollars from parties whose interest is in their own profits, not in maintaining a free and competitive global network. Then again, maybe there's nothing to worry about, but it is definitely worth your time to be somewhat well versed on this very complex issue.

The reason I call the issue of network neutrality to your attention is because it has benefited people like Linus Torvalds, who used the neutral Internet to share his Linux kernel and collaborate with other users to make an operating system (Linux) that rivals that of the one made by multi-billion dollar Sun Microsystems. It's the thing that has made global collaboration among open source developers possible. It's what allows people all over the world to communicate using e-mail, instant messenger, and Voice over IP. Whether you are a single person with a blog or a large multi-national company with deep pockets, you get the same treatment. Imagine if network providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon were legally allowed to decide at what rate and priority content was delivered. What would that mean to us as end users? Would it open the door for infringement of the freedoms of the Internet that many of us take for granted? Would it stifle competition and freedom of expression? If we don't take action to prevent this, I believe there is potential for the Internet to turn into a pay-to-play market, dominated by those who have the most money to spend to fast-track their products, services, and ideas to you.

Net Neutrality is of global importance, not just a U.S. concern. However, it's coming to light in the U.S. because of our position as one of the largest consumers of Internet services. Congress is currently considering a rewrite of the Telecommunication Act of 1996, which was intended to deregulate and foster competition by giving consumers choice in local phone service. It also had the interesting consequence of allowing many mergers to occur in the telecom industry, including some of the formerly broken apart Bell companies to consolidate, but more on that later.

If you notice I haven't used the word "rights," because freedom to use the Internet without discrimination was not spelled out in the Bill of Rights or any document for that matter. It was probably something that our founding fathers could have never imagined when they penned those words, specifically: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Right now the Internet provides us all a place to voice our thoughts and opinions with equality; what happens when the ability to share opinions goes to the highest bidder. This is the point where you can help set the direction of the freedom of the Internet by contacting your legislators and voicing your opinions. There are already advocacy groups that will help you understand and articulate these points to your legislator; they include the Save the Internet (www.savetheinternet.com) and It's Our Net (www.itsournet.org).

Let me step back, because perhaps I am not being fair; perchance I should advocate a laissez-faire approach to this issue, urging you to tell your legislator not do anything and to leave the telecom providers to their own devices. I would, in some situations, say that sounds like a good idea. Though I'll use an historic example of what happens when telecom providers are left unchecked - specifically in 1984 when the Bell System was broken apart into the regional Bell operating companies known as the RBOCs. This was the result of an anti-trust lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice to break up the telephone monopoly. I believe that left unchecked and without minimal regulatory oversight, the new monopolies and practices that stifle competition will arise. I offer the Internet Freedom Act of 2006 (S. 2917) submitted by Senators Byron Dorgan (D -North Dakota) and Olympia Snowe (R - Maine) as a way to make sure that providers of Internet access don't mess with the way our bits and bytes are delivered.

Network neutrality is a high stakes proposition. On the one side there is the potential for stifling competition and innovation, the tenants of success for the Internet. The counterpart is that without a way to increase their revenues, bandwidth providers won't be able to subsidize the build-out of an increasingly wired world. I also don't oppose different pricing and other changes in today's model; the value the Internet provides me is immeasurable. What is critical is that the Internet remains free from bias and that any governance is there only to provide neutrality.

Additional Resources

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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Most Recent Comments
Bob White 08/10/06 01:39:39 PM EDT

The author writes, "If you don't take the initiative to tell them how you feel, this issue could be decided based on the efforts of high-paid lobbyists backed with dollars from parties whose interest is in their own profits, not in maintaining a free and competitive global network."

Leaving aside that the profit motive is not mutually exclusive with competition and that self-interest is usually not a bad motivator, and that low-paid lobbyists are no nobler than high-paid lobbyists, and that high-paid lobbyists often advocate for good things despite being lucky enough to get paid so much, I cynically contend that the process is likely to be influenced by lobbyists in any event.

David 08/09/06 01:21:33 AM EDT

Net neutrality is critical for a fair playing field. Just like one cable channel doesn't get faster delivery than other channels, or one phone call doesn't get faster lines than other phone calls, we need to be sure the Internet doesn't fragment in many different levels of service that allow those with deep pockets to buy all the "fast lanes" and leave us with the dregs.

While mail has varying levels, it's not a fair comparison because the level of effort to deliver a package in one day versus 3 days is dramatically different. In the end, a closer analogy would be to allow me to pay more for first class mail so that I could ice out your first class letter from being delivered in a timely fashion. Car lanes shouldn't be parceled to the highest bidder, nor should bits traversing the Internet. A user can always buy more bandwidth if lots of data is needed, but that's not the same as saying my packets will block yours because I paid more than you.