On network neutrality

Today’s News From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

ON NETWORK NEUTRALITY: A MINUTE WITH U. OF I. EXPERT CHIP BRUCE

Editor’s note: The proposed deal between Google and Verizon to create two tiers of service for Internet traffic has made waves throughout the technology and telecommunications industry. It also managed to rile network neutrality and privacy advocates, who see the proposed partnership in much starker terms, with some even going as far as calling the deal the end of the Internet as we know it.

Chip Bruce, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois, was interviewed by News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora about the Google-Verizon partnership and its impact on network neutrality.

What makes the proposed partnership between Google and Verizon so scary for consumers? Why should this give the average person pause?

Today, you can go online to see content offered by Google or Verizon, but also that of other large computer and communications companies, small businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations, and potentially any of the world’s 2 billion Internet users as well as content produced originally offline. Google says that this partnership won’t endanger that, but the loss of net neutrality is a first step away from open access to information and toward pre-packaged service.

Verizon wants to be able to serve its content faster or even in lieu of any of its competitors’ content. You’d be able to get news, music, videos and sports as always, but Google-Verizon could say which version you’d see. This immediately endangers free speech and the free flow of information, because private companies would essentially have the final say on what gets out. It also has implications for privacy of Internet use, since the providers will need to examine Internet content in order to control it.

There are also major risks for innovation on the Internet. Suppose that someone in a dorm or a garage devises a better way to deliver television and movies. If major providers control which information flows in what way, those young entrepreneurs may never get the chance to enter their idea into the marketplace.

Net neutrality advocates would argue that the increasing corporate control over the Internet essentially has privatized a service that was developed at public expense to serve public needs. Does that line of reasoning also hold for wireless networks?

Much of the basic technology for both wired and wireless systems has been developed at public expense to serve public needs. The communications corporations would argue that they’ve invested a huge amount on top of that, and in absolute dollar terms, they have.

But beyond any argument about who paid for what, we should remember why public funds have been used to support basic communications. The primary reason is the understanding that a viable democracy requires free and open communication among an educated public. In addition, an open system fosters economic development, cultural exchange, education and many other public goods.

Corporate control over the Internet offers no assurance that these public values will be served. In fact, by law, corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to serve their stockholders, not the public.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently has argued against the “sheer impracticality” of net neutrality on wireless networks. Is he correct?

There has never been nor will there ever be full and absolute net neutrality. Money and power speak in many ways to ensure, for example, that an ordinary person does not have the same access as a major multinational corporation does. With demand exceeding capacity, it may be difficult in the short run to maintain net neutrality on wireless networks. However, the bigger question is what policies we should strive to maintain. Do we want communications systems that afford the greatest possible freedom of access and use for all, or do we want a small set of closed systems, offering controlled and pre-packaged content?

It seems like corporations are increasingly setting the terms for the net neutrality debate. What should the FCC do to re-assert its jurisdiction and authority?

A key issue is whether we want to allow the major means for Internet access to become a set of packages of controlled information, like an individual book or magazine in print form. That’s what the loss of net neutrality could mean.

But I see the Internet as a communications system, and major communications companies as common carriers of those communications. As such, it’s crucial that they be required to deliver communications without tiers for special services, favoritism or control of content. In that sense, the Internet is more akin to the print publishing world, not to a single book.

This means that the FCC needs to “reclassify” broadband from being an information service to a telecommunications service, which would then require communications companies to ensure open use.

What would an Internet without net neutrality look like?

We don’t know for sure, and there are many reasons why – corporations may react in different ways, the public may acquiesce or rebel, and the technologies may change in radical ways we can’t foresee today.

It’s increasingly likely, however, that the Internet experience will become one defined by the specific service one purchases, whether that’s through Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, or some other company. Each corporation will seek to meet consumer needs, but in a way that maximizes its profit. For example, every service will offer movies, but the cost, terms of service, and so on, will be those of that provider. There will be a financial incentive to deprecate services that don’t generate revenue. What’s being sold is then a package of services, not general communication access.

The ordinary user will see some enticing new services, as each corporation tries to lure customers. But she or he will not find some content they find now, because it won’t support the business model. A recent example is Comcast’s undermining of net neutrality by shutting down peer-to-peer networking – in particular, BitTorrent. A U.S. Appeals Court ruling in April allowed that under the assumption of the Internet as information service.

And it’s not just cheap entertainment that will be lost. About the same time as the U.S. Appeals Court ruling, WikiLeaks released a classified U.S. military video showing the killing of more than a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters news staffers. What guarantee do we have a profit-seeking corporation will provide open access to independent media?

Suppose you think BitTorrent and WikiLeaks are wrong. Do you want your Internet provider to decide what you can and cannot see? Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech and innovation, the big question is, “Who should decide Internet policy?”

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Islamic community center in New York

Based on the evidence, this post seems unnecessary and even risks treating bigotry with more respect than it deserves. But based on rhetoric in the mass media and polling numbers the post seems overdue.

The Cordoba Initiative is building an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, called Cordoba House. The center will include a mosque, an auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bookstore. It’s based on the model of Jewish community centers and Y’s in Manhattan; the board will include Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. The center is “dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet” and to serve as a model of moderate Islam.

Located near (but not at) Ground Zero, Cordoba House replaces a building damaged in the September 11 attacks. Announcement of the plans led to a brouhaha, what Anthony DiMaggio calls a “manufactured controversy.” Although there is both support and opposition among every group (9/11 survivors and families, people in Lower Manhattan, Christians, Muslims, etc.), the majority view is opposed. Some people go so far as to argue in effect for an abandonment of the First Amendment, for the government to establish which religions should be allowed to practice where, not to mention an extraordinary abridgment of private property rights.

But as Todd Gitlin writes, it is not the duty of American governments “to construct a mosque-free zone around the World Trade Center site because some Americans oppose putting it there.” To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg gave unambiguous support to the idea that the fact of terrorism should not be allowed to destroy American values or Constitutional rights.

Referring to the firefighters and police officers who entered the trade center on September 11, Bloomberg said, “In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’” Further, “We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights—and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

Bloomberg based his actions on general principles of religious freedom and against bigotry. But having lived for many years in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., I can’t help noting that his parents had to hide their identity when they wanted to buy a house in Medford. Joyce Purnick says in her biography:

“My uncle wouldn’t dare sell to a Jew,” says a childhood friend of Mike, Thomas Buckley, about his relative, the realtor who sold the stone-and-clapboard houses in the newly built community that attracted the Bloombergs. “If he did, he would have been out of business. He knew they were buying it. He just didn’t say anything.”

No Jews lived in the immediate neighborhood, very few anywhere in Medford. But everyone assumed that would change, including the Bloombergs, who resolved not to let residual anti-Semitism block their path. “They weren’t very happy,” Mrs. Bloomberg said of some neighbors. “Our lawyer, George McLaughlin, who was Irish, bought the house and sold it to us.

Bloomberg managed to survive Medford and later endowed his hometown synagogue, Temple Shalom. It was renamed for his parents as the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Jewish Community Center of Medford.

After 9/11, many people asked Muslims to condemn the trade center attacks, fanaticism, terrorism, and Osama Bib Laden. They also demanded that Muslims reach out to mainstream America. That’s exactly what the Cordoba Initiative is doing. But even if they weren’t doing that, our Constitution as well as basic human decency call on us to respect the rights of all, even those we misunderstand.

References

Barbaro, Michael, (2010, August 12). Mayor’s stance on Muslim center has deep roots. The New York Times.

Clawson, Julie (2010, June 8). Forgiveness, Fear, and the Mosque at Ground Zero. Sojourners.

DiMaggio, Anthony (2010, August 12). The Muslim community center at Ground Zero: A manufactured controversy. counterpunch.

Gitlin, Todd (2010, August 13). American values and the Ground Zero mosque. The New Republic.

Purnick, Joyce (2009). Mike Bloomberg: Money, politics, power. PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group.

Salisbury, Stephan (2010, August 10). Mosque mania. Mother Jones.

The death of net neutrality

This is bad news.

Google, once a defender of net neutrality and a company whose informal motto was “don’t be evil,” may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.

WASHINGTON — Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege. via Google and Verizon near deal on pay tiers for web

Essentially this means large corporations and governments will have access to the high-speed lanes; their content will be seen first and fastest. The Internet will become a reserved lane system with the on-ramps blocked for those who can’t pay. A system built with public funds will increasingly become a means to fill the pockets of the few at the expense of the public.

Let’s push that metaphor a bit more: Internet corporations are legally responsible to their shareholders and not to the public. We will soon see them devoting virtually all of their resources to improving only the high-speed lanes leaving potholes for the rest of us.

Save the Internet and others are pushing Google and Verizon to be more socially responsible, but that’s at best a short-term fix. Net neutrality, including our access to information, requires legislative and judicial protection. Otherwise, we’re facing a serious compromise of the First Amendment.

References

Silver, Josh (2010, August 5). Google-Verizon deal: The end of the Internet as we know it. Huffington Post.

Tady, Megan (2010, August 5). Google turns its back on net neutrality. Save the Internet.

Wyatt, Edward (2010, August 4). Google and Verizon near deal on pay tiers for web. New York TImes.