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?”

Visit the News Bureau for more U. of I. news.


See also:

Network neutrality notes

Network neutrality means no restrictions by Internet Service Providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, attached equipment, or modes of communication. This includes neither blocking sites nor offering tiered service models. It can be viewed from the perspective of users wanted to access particular content, such as peer-to-peer sites for video or music, or from the perspective of producers seeking to deliver their content more effectively to users.

History. Concerns with telegraph: “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception. (Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860)

In 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the purpose “to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States… A rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.”

The Internet developed out of public funded services, such as Arpanet, NSFnet, TCI/IP. Eventually centralized routing aspects were removed, allowing the free-wheeling Internet we use today. But in recent years, corporate control over key aspects of the Internet has grown, essentially privatizing a service developed at public expense to serve public needs.

Tiered service. Opponents of net neutrality see it as “a solution in search of a problem”, arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Yet, Comcast, for example, “intentionally and secretly blocked access to lawful content on the Internet,” e.g.,  peer-to-peer (P2P) communications, such as BitTorrent. The FCC attempted to block that, but lost that authority after a US Court of Appeals decision on April 6, 2010.

Google 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.

Issues.

  • Innovation: The Internet has been a striking incubator of new ideas, enterprises, products, services, and jobs. This is to a large extent based on its open practices.
  • Privacy: An Internet with built-in nonneutrality would require an additional level of monitoring, i.e., surveillance, so that packets of information can be routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged. (Cohen, 2010).
  • Free speech: The more service is based on the ability to pay, the less access will ordinary people have to the public forum. ISPs, with a legal responsibility to their shareholders alone, have no incentive to guarantee high quality access to all, and in fact, are legally bound not to do so. They could degrade or block any Web site that was critical of them or did not support their political views.
  • Secrecy: In a Kafkaesque mode, there is no provision for corporations to reveal their selective control of content, including whom they target for preferential or degraded service, why they do so, or even whether or how much they have done. Nearly all major phone and cable companies have promised their shareholders that they plan to block or degrade the content and services of their competitors.
  • Access to information: The other side of free speech. Access suffers when what’s available is based on how much someone paid to put it there.

Who decides. Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech, innovation, etc., the big question is “Who should decide internet policy?”

References

Cohen, Noam (2010, August 15). Internet proposal from Google and Verizon raises fears for privacy. The New York Times.

Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.

US Court of Appeals (2010, April 6). Comcast Corp. v. Federal Communication Commission..

Priorities and values

Money reflects priorities, and priorities reflect values. Consider US Government expenditures to

Put another way:

The US government has in effect offered $3.80 for each of the 20 million people who’ve lost family members, food, clean water, homes, and livelihoods because of the floods. It’s spent 158 times that for military aid, much of which has not gone to fight terrorism, but to bolster a military dictatorship, to provide heavy weaponry that threatens India, and to benefit the US defense industry. It’s spent 4,276 times as much to fight a war that shows little prospect of winning hearts and minds, nor for ending terrorism.

(Of course, we may later spend more on flood relief; we could consider annual, rather than total costs; all of the numbers are contested estimates. But regardless of how you cut it, the differences are striking.)

Then we ask: Why don’t “they” love us and embrace our values?

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.

The endless war

There’s some dispute about whether the war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, but there’s no question that it’s gone on a long time and that it shows little sign of heading toward even an end, much less a successful resolution.

When people talk about WWII, there is sometimes disagreement about the means–were the atomic bombs and fire-bombings necessary? There is less debate about the outcome in terms of ending Nazi terrorism and the Japanese expansion. And even during the war there was a sense all around that an end of some sort would be achieved; there would be a surrender or at least an armistice. The fighting would eventually stop, one way or another, and it did.

But we’ve now entered the era of the endless war. Can Kandahar be secured? Maybe, maybe not. But what then? Do the shifting alliances of enemies–Al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network simply walk away? Is there a version of Hirohito to say “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” and then surrender? Will young Afghani’s ignore the poverty and devastation and choose to move on? Will ordinary people forgive the occupation, the drones, the collateral damage, the cultural insensitivity, the broken promises? Where are even implausible scenarios of how that will happen?

It’s not enough to say that there are people on the other side who have done or want to do bad things. There must be a vision of change. Yet all we hear is that top operatives have been killed, some place has been temporarily conquered, or that we have a timetable for success.

Writing in Mother Jones, Ann Jones says,

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them, moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair. —Jones (2010)

Obama has been a good President in many ways, and still has the potential to be a great one, but his continuance and expansion of the war, now across a wide swath of Africa to Asia, reveals a spiritual deficiency in the American polity. Rev. Martin Luther King’s words from the Vietnam War time are even more relevant today.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. —King (1967)

References

King, Rev. Martin Luther (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence. Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Jones, Ann (2010, July 2). Counterinsurgency down for the count in Afghanistan…. Mother Jones.

The texture of peace

The Vision of Humanity project has just released its latest report on the “texture of peace.”

Using 24 indicators, such as a nation’s level of military expenditure, its relations with neighbors, and the respect for human rights, the report quantifies the different aspects of peacefulness. It measures peacefulness within, as well as between, nations.

Understanding the texture of peace is more useful than saying simply “at war” or “peace is good.” It helps us see that no country is totally peaceful and that degrees of peacefulness can be quantified for comparison among countries or over time. We can also see how the lack of peace has costs beyond acts of violence per se.

The report identifies some of the drivers of peace, such as levels of democracy and transparency, education, and national well being. Their data show that

[t]he most peaceful societies have higher per capita income, high levels of well-being, more freedom, perform better at sustainability, and appear to have a more equitable distribution of social spending (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2010, p. 4).

The study also examines the economic consequences of peace. One remarkable finding for 2010 is that

…had the world been at peace, world economic output might have reached US$62.4 trillion, an increase of 8.5% and easily exceeding the output losses due to the economic crisis of 2008/9… Even a reduction in levels of violence of just 15% would equal the output loss due to the economic crisis (Ibid, p. 51)

I doubt that many people who turn to violence as a solution for conflicts, or any military contractors who benefit from the lack of peace, will read this report and suddenly decide that they’re misguided. But for the rest of us, this study provides some tools to question the direction we’re going, a way to measure progress, and a way to demonstrate the consequences of violence to the economy and the quality of life.

By the way, last year I celebrated ironically the ascension of the US to #83 on the list. It’s not good for anyone that the most powerful nation on earth is ranked among countries with severe poverty, Balkan states, which are still recovering from major conflict, and former Soviet republics. This year the US has dropped to #85.

References

Institute for Economics & Peace (2010). Peace, wealth and human potential. 2010 discussion paper.

Technologies to improve the quality of life

Gary McDarby was one of many very impressive people I met during my stay in Ireland during 2007-08. If you watch this short video, I think you’ll understand why.

It’s amazing how he manages to introduce several important projects in a short time, including Camara, SMART, and the Computer Clubhouse.

Prepare yourself for some tears.

Gary writes:

as many of you know, on the 7th of August 2009 Stuart Mangan and Robert Stringer passed away. I had been working with Stuart on technologies to help improve his quality of life (he had suffered a severe spinal injury in 2008) and Robert Stringer had been taking a holiday after volunteering with Camara in Tanzania when he was killed. In a strange twist of fate they died on the same day.

I have been giving a series of talks on these events with the sole of intention of trying to create something positive out of what was a very sad and challenging time. First and foremost I want to pay tribute to these two wonderful young men.

Recently I gave an IGNITE talk in the Science Gallery on what happened. It’s a short, 5 minute format which is quite a challenge to do, especially if the subject matter is non trivial.

I wanted to try and create something meaningful in this short format so it could be passed around in the viral ways we are all so used to. Its by no means perfect but please feel free to pass it on. The talk is here:

Inquiry-based community engagement

Melissa Pognon just alerted me to an interesting article by David Low, on university-community engagement. It presents a dialogical, or inquiry-based, view of engagement, drawing from communication theory and Perice’s theory of inquiry. Low emphasizes that

we do not ‘transfer’ or ‘transmit’ knowledge between social systems, but, rather, we engage a method that enables the recognition of a shared object of enquiry – its entelechy (Nicholls 2000) (p. 108).

This shared enquiry must not only tolerate dissent or difference, it actually depends on dissent to function at all. Such a view is radically different from the dominant university discourse around topics such as “knowledge transfer,” “public outreach,” or “service learning.”

Low writes,

without a method to nurture and reveal dissent, universities would be unable to even recognise different ways of being in the world, and enquiry would be rendered impossible (Hawes 1999, p. 235) (p. 111).

I find myself drawn initially to 2×2 tables such as the one Low presents in his grid-group, then later becoming frustrated with all that they obscure as well as reveal. But the article as a whole has many useful insights.

References

Hawes, L. (1999). The dialogics of conversation: Power, control, vulnerability. Communication Theory, 9(3), 229–264.

Low, David (2008). University-community engagement: A grid-group analysis. Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement, 1, 107-127.

Nicholls, A. (2000, September). The secularization of revelation from Plato to Freud. Contretemps, 1, 62–70.

Peirce, Charles S. (1877, November). The fixation of belief. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 1-15.

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.

References

  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.