Net Neutrality - The Dangers And Risks Of A “Managed” Internet

by Randy Murray on January 10, 2011

This is the second in my series on Net Neutrality. If you haven’t read the first post, you might want to start with it: Net Neutrality – A Turning Point For Freedom And The Future.

Today you can use the Internet with relative freedom. After you pay for access or gain it from a free source, you can choose which sites you’ll visit and read, which services you’ll use and what you’ll publish yourself. It’s been grand. And billions of dollars of the world economy are being driven by the innovation that this openness has fostered.

But under the guise of “managing” the network traffic for their customers, telecommunications carriers are positioning themselves not only to limit what you can and can’t access on the net, but are beginning the steps that will lead to censoring and blocking online behavior and speech if they wish. A great deal is made of how China and other countries censor the Internet. Allowing the carriers to manage network traffic and giving preferred or priority status to vendors who pay their tolls is a big step in that same direction.

Let’s say, for example, that a major carrier, like AT&T, is asked by a future Federal administration to secretly record all of the traffic and usage on its network and deliver it up, without warrant, to the Feds for review.

That’ll never happen? It already has. The Bush administration asked AT&T record phone and Internet communications from its domestic customers and deliver it to the National Security Administration (NSA). It did so secretly and without warrants. Although this activity was clearly illegal by the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, AT&T happily complied. It’s a legal quagmire that will take decades to sort out and has largely been squelched by the previous and current administrations.

Now, instead of just recording, maybe these carriers could please slow down the traffic to that troubling political site that’s cropping up, maybe drop three out of four searches for its name? And could you please tell the news and media outlets that you own to not pay attention to what we’re doing in some other corner of the world/economy/your back yard. Far fetched?

Here’s another, seemingly innocent example: let’s say that you’re a “Netfix” customer (an imaginary streaming media company), but your Internet provider is fictional company named “Warner Time”. Warner Time would strongly prefer that you used and paid them for streaming movies and TV shows instead. So they might throttle the traffic from Netfix to subscribers on their network, making it too slow to be used. You could access it, but the picture might jump and stutter.  It could take hours and hours to download a movie. You might subscribe to their Cable TV service, which just happens to be priced at a much higher rate. Or maybe they’d allow you to pay them a premium and let you access Netfix at passible speeds, but they could perhaps meter your usage and charge you by the megabyte, once again making it too expensive to use. And not only for Netfix, but every other streaming media company. It’s bad for Netfix and it’s bad for you.

Maybe at some point in the future a group might complain to the fictional Warner Time and threaten a boycott unless they tone things down on HBO (which they recently purchased from the not so fictional Time Warner). So the company might quietly shelve their current series or even past greats like Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, and many others to put on some other, less offensive fare. Problem solved. Somewhere on the open Internet you might find programming you like, but sorry, your provider would prefer that you didn’t watch it. Problem solved again. Just not for you.

Perhaps someone, somewhere, will decide to take the next step with classic books, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Instead of putting out a censored new print edition, as they just did, they might cause every online edition of it to be altered and forever changed, perhaps even blocking any mention of controversy or that anything had been changed at all. Twain himself had a few things to say about the controversy over the book (which had nothing to do with the “n-word” at the time). He said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

There are those who will claim, “If you don’t like your provider, use another.” Unfortunately, many places have only one provider. And some big providers control major parts of the communications backbone. Even when you do have options they all begin to look exactly the same; the big providers are all on board with managing traffic. They’d love to manage your traffic, too.

Here’s your simple mantra: corporations do not have my best interest in mind – they only want to make a profit. Repeat that a few times. It’s not that they want to hurt you, mostly, but they want to make a profit. And profits must endlessly grow. If you pay someone else a dollar, that’s a dollar they can’t collect from you. It’s not personal, it’s just business.

But to me, it’s extremely personal. And if you look into it and think about it a bit, I think you’ll find it’s personal and important to you as well.

If we keep the Internet open, then the bright future and innovation that’s to come will drive the economy for decades. If we allow it to become managed, it will quickly become something we’ve all seen and left behind as a failure. What does a managed Internet look like? I can tell you in one simple spoken phrase: “You’ve got mail!”

There’s more to come in the next days and weeks, including ways you can get involved to help prevent the destruction of the open Internet, a model for how the carriers can make a profit and not manage the traffic or content, and a modest proposal.

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