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Free the Internet


Free the Internet

The Internet can be a pain in the ass. I tend to think of it as an adolescent, like a six year old who is still trying to figure things out. Making it profitable was one of the big things in the last decade when revenues were scarce and mainly came from advertisements which over the years have become more intrusive and more obnoxious. These days, we use the Internet for a significant amount of our purchasing, enough so that it has become a viable tool for most of us. In fact, a real argument can be made that the Internet is driving our economy these days.

We also use it for recreation and information gathering. We use it for socializing. We use it for expressing our opinion, and for posting selfies. We figure out what restaurants in town are getting the best reviews on Yelp, where the best hotel and airfares are on Kayak, what deadly diseases our symptoms best fit on WebMD. We look for discounts on Groupon, stream movies on Netflix, arrange get-togethers on Facebook. We figure out what our friends are up to on Pinterest, do our shoe shopping on Zappos, look up our family trees on Ancestry and check out what our favorite celebrities are saying on Twitter. All of these actions have varying degrees of importance. The most important thing when it comes to the Internet however is Net Neutrality.

You’ve probably heard the term bandied about and some may wonder what it means. The term originated in 2003 with Columbia University professor Tim Wu as an extension to the existing concept of a common carrier. Essentially it means that Internet Service Providers or governments treat all data equally without discriminating against user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment and/or modes of communication. It is considered a crucial component of an open internet in which all users have equal and unfettered access to all sites.

This past April 23, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a reversal of their previous position supporting net neutrality had been reported to be considering to allow new regulations that will allow content providers to use a faster track to send content which will in essence create a two-tiered system of access. What this would mean to users is that sites that use this faster track will only be available at an additional charge. That means that you will not only pay your ISP for Internet access, you’ll also pay additional charges if you want to use the more popular sites.

This will undoubtedly lead to tier pricing much like cable and satellite television services use, with a “basic Net” access but if you want to access to, say, news sites like The New York Times, Digg, MSNBC, Fox News and CNN, you pay an additional $5 a month, while if you want to use video-streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO you’ll pay an additional $20 per month. Interested in social networking on Facebook, Twitter or Match.com? That’ll be $15 every month.

I have no objection to allowing ISPs to be profitable, nor do I think it’s necessarily a bad thing to allow the most popular content providers to allow their services to be directed at people most likely to use them. After all, there was no hue and cry when cable operators began the current pricing structure that is pretty much universal these days.

But cable and satellite systems are a different animal than the Internet. Giving the content providers who can afford it more speed and clearer pathways is preferential treatment. It creates a situation similar to that in the early 20th century when large companies who needed to transport their goods via railway managed to negotiate favorable rates, allowing them to charge much less for their product and price the competition out of the market. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was notorious for this; eventually his trust got broken up because of his tactics which didn’t allow for fair competition.

So why is this important? Other than raising prices and limiting access to certain sites, why should we care? Well, look at who is going to profit from this – the cable providers who these days control most of the access to the Internet. Folks like Time Warner, Cox Cable, Verizon and Bright House. While to this point they have claimed loudly that they have no intention of charging customers extra for these faster access sites, that doesn’t ring true. Why would any company deny itself an opportunity for additional profit? What makes this shadier is that the Chairman of the FCC is Tom Wheeler – who previously ran the lobby for the Cable Industry. Think he’s looking out for the consumer, or for those who used to pay his salary? Even those large companies who would have that faster access – folks like Netflix and Amazon – have objected to this scheme.

In that sense, the Internet is similar; what net neutrality proponents are fighting for is fair access.  As a content provider myself, I don’t want to see anyone charged for the right to access my blog and I wouldn’t accept money from such charges even if that were an option; after all, the whole point of expressing myself in this manner is that anyone can read it and then either agree or disagree. Blogs like this are the editorial columns of the global newspaper that the Internet is..

And the Internet does fulfill the function that the newspapers once did; we get most of our information from the Net. We find sales and print out coupons from the Net. We check out the classified ads (i.e. Craigslist) and read net comics. Sure, you couldn’t play video games in newspapers nor watch video clips of news events or of cute kittens. There are no selfies in newspapers nor have we ever done any chatting through our newspaper (although we did because of our newspaper – different era) but the basic comparison is sound.

How much freedom we have on the Net in the coming decades is going to be decided in the next couple of years. We have the responsibility to be vigilant and make sure that bureaucrats and corporate and political interests don’t muddy up the waters of the clean and cool stream of information that is the Internet. We don’t want a Net like China’s which is heavily censored, nor do we want one that is controlled strictly by money and political influence. This is OUR Internet and the fight to keep it ours is just beginning. The good news is that you can contribute your voice right now. The FCC is seeking public opinion about this issue and you can state yours here through June 27. However, be patient; a recent comedy sketch by John Oliver on his HBO show Last Night Tonight inviting people to troll the FCC comments site has resulted in a slow down in service. Nonetheless if you can get in, get in. It’s important that your voice be heard.

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