Thursday, January 21, 2010

Net Neutrality: Actual Freedom for the "Land of the Free"

Reader "Kirstin" again (where're the articles from the rest of you, schweinen? but thanks, Kirstin) asks today about Net Neutrality, which, in the humble opinion of your Expert, is kind of hard to get excited about, but is nonetheless one of the most important corcerns for the future civic life of this country, and the world. So here we go! (I apologize in advance for this post being more "serious" than "snide")

In Which I Whip Google Again, Because It's Fun and Countercultural

NY Times "Topics," Net Neutrality

NY Times, December 27, 2009

Ok! In a nutshell, currently, you pay your cable bill and you can get on the internet and find anything. And I mean that almost literally: we all know about the porn and the comedy sites, but the internet truly is a cornocopia of useful information, once you wade through all the crap.

This is especially true if you're trying to stay educated on the state of the world. There are about three quality newspapers in national circulation (the NY Times, the Washington Post, and the WSJ, all with plenty of flaws, but, still, indispensible, and pretty good) and television is an utterly contemplible joke with the sole exception of PBS. In particular, television is a source of alarmist short-term news cycle items that spread fear and disinformation amongst the populace. But on the internet, you have,,,,, etc. You name it, the information is THERE. If you are a good, Jeffersonian-style citizen, you can go get it. And it's still - unbelievably - basically uncensored.*

So naturally the media barons of the world are not very happy about this "neutral" state of affairs. They would like to start charging certain websites higher rates to provide their content at the normal speed, and let the poorer types suffer. That would inevitably lead to an internet very much like the television, where you could only get,,, with actual, informative websites going the way of public access TV.

The threat is obvious. The rich and powerful will always seek to expand their power at the expense of the weak. I frankly wish I knew a little bit more about the early history of radio and television, how broadcasting channels were diivied up and handed out, and what the public reaction thereto was. I would not be surprised to see a lack of citizen attentiveness towards net neutrality leading to an end to net neutrality, probably sold to us in terms of market "fairness" and "efficiency" (classic explanations for doing away with public goods and putting them in private hands).

But internet provider neutrality is not the only concern. "Search neutrality" is also a big consideration. Google is a monopoly; it controls 71% of the American internet search market. The likely response to this is, "well that's because Google kicks so much ass," and it's true, Google is pretty useful, but most of Google's knicknacks were developed by other companies, and bought out by Google; Standard Oil was pretty kick-ass too, but it became kick-ass by smothering it's competitors, which led to Standard Oil setting the terms. And Google is increasingly setting the terms, putting Google-backed products first in every search result, and shoving competitors way towards the back.

What we need to fear is that Google becomes the CNN/Fox of the internet; everyone who's anyone starts using Google, and getting their news from Google-sponsored websites. This would put the internet on the quick path towards TV-like irrevelance and de facto censorship, where you're hearing about Terry Schiavo nonstop but very little/never about the Employee Free Choice Act, for instance.

Thankfully, the Obama administration seems committed to net neutrality. Kudos for them, and let's hope it stays that way. Attacks on net neutrality are NOT going to be high-profile items, so we who enjoy and love our internet freedom will have to remain quite vigilant about it. In a nation where George W. Bush was appointed President and we didn't rise up and overthrow him, and where the most organized and dedicated protests routinely originate on the far-right, that strikes me as a dubious proposition.

* Let's not even get into the issue of workplaces firewalling off certain websites. Porn and online games, sure, no biggie. But shouldn't it be our constitutional right, if we have to sit in cubicles all day long, to have access to the public information of the internet? It's not like we have time to keep our citizenship up to date when we go home... that whole "come home and get your news from the TV" crap has not worked out so well, since at least the Reagan era forward.

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