Net Neutrality: Time to Act

Net Neutrality: Time to Act

BY Editors | Tuesday, March 7 2006

[Editor's note: Today, I was on a panel at Politics Online called "Over the Horizon." Eli Pariser gave a terrific presentation that started with the following observation: The future could be very dark, if we don't realize that the very foundation of the open internet is threatened. Here are the notes from his talk, which he kindly shared with PDF.]

1. Politics online has had a good run. We’ve increased the impact of small donors. We’ve made politics a multilateral conversation. We’ve found and empowered new constituencies. And all of us have strengthened democracy. The future can be very bright.

2. Why? Politics online has flourished because the soil has been fertile. The Internet has been one of humanity’s great commons – a public space in which new ideas, new conversations, and new movements can grow and thrive. And that’s because:
a. All information is treated the same. MoveOn’s packets and the RNC’s packets are all routed the same way.
b. No gatekeepers. No one deciding which packets move and which ones don’t.
c. Low barrier to entry. When I got involved, I spent $35 on a website domain name. That was it. And within weeks, I was talking to 500,000 people.
d. Everyone, everywhere has access.

3. The threat. Cable companies and ISPs seek to change the fundamental rules of the Internet by privileging some data over others. This is a very slippery slope, and it threatens to reverse the motion toward stronger human networks, entrepreneuriality, etc. What does it look like?
a. You wake up and want to search on Froogle. Verizon, your provider, has signed a deal with Yahoo and makes Google slow. Frustrating. Or they’ve turned it off. Preference goes to sites who are paying them.
b. You check your email. All the “certified” stuff is at the top, so you barely even notice the emails from your favorite grassroots group, which couldn’t afford certification (or just didn’t get the top level).
c. You try your Vonage phone, but that’s not working – Verizon has cut off service for folks using other phone services.
d. Extreme version: you pay $.02/min to watch video content, $.03/min to watch text. Because each packet is scrutinized, content is locked down by copyright systems which make it impossible to engage in the kinds of parody now available. Freedom and creativity is restricted, and a few big movers control much of where you go, what you do.
i. ATT’s Ed Whitacre wants consumers and content providers to pay for use of his network. “The Internet can’t be free … for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes free is nuts.”
ii. BellSouth’s William Smith told reporters that he would like to turn the Internet into a “pay-for-performance marketplace” where his company could charge for the “right” to have certain services load faster than others.

4. Under all this is a simple principle: the more open and interoperable our communication system is, the better people will be able to innovate within it. This is "Net neutrality."
a. Why isn’t there a MoveOn for cell phones? Too much variance in the platforms, no one is going to write software for all of them.
b. The internet as we know it simply doesn’t exist without net neutrality.
c. The problem, as the New York Times says, “Internet providers – rather than customers – start driving how the Internet evolves – what sites fail and which ones succeed.”
d. Vint Cerf: “Intelligence at the edge rather than control at the middle.”

5. What does this mean for us?
a. A non-neutral net will inevitably skew in favor of big companies, and away from groups like ours. You can see this with AOL. They didn’t even consider the impact on groups like ours.
b. By extension, it would reintroduce the primacy of money – the money needed to cut deals with these providers.

6. This is all coming to a head in the next year or two. The battle:
a. Clash of the titans. Google vs. Verizon. Verizon has literally said, “why are they making so much money off our connection.” That’s the wrong way to think about it.
b. Citizens’ groups. We need to weigh in. Go to www.netfreedomnow.com. Politics online has been an incredible ride. Unless we act now, this could be remembered as a brief explosion of innovation and action – followed by the steady erosion of one of the best hopes for true democracy.

Eli Pariser is the executive director of MoveOn.org.

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