Monday, January 14, 2008

Net Neutrality and Democracy

I've been studying the concept of network neutrality since June. I do know one thing to be a relative certainty: net neutrality is inherently linked to free speech, not to mention the other things like commerce and politics. And I support net neutrality, not because it's what my political choice demands, or because someone else has somehow misinformed me, but because it simply and undeniably makes logical sense.

Common sense dictates that network neutrality is going to mean government regulation. That part is pretty much a given. And while I'm generally against regulations that are imprudent, this is a major case of consumer protection versus corporate interests. When given a choice like that, I'm forced to choose consumer protection almost every time (except in some cases, where it's clear that consumer protection would have minimal impact on consumers while inexorably damaging corporate ability to do business... and there are even exceptions to that, as well).

Regulations about network neutrality would limit corporate abilities to control traffic that didn't originate within their own networks. The Supreme Court in June of 2007 already ruled that companies may control their own network traffic, but specifically excluded traffic outside their network from being throttled or controlled. This was essentially what was already happening, but Comcast began throttling P2P traffic such as BitTorrent or Gnutella, and I actually know some of the people who first reported the story (and no, it wasn't the Associated Press reporters who blew the story wide open). And it's wrong, in spite of their aims.

This is non-neutrality, because it's preventing a type of legitimate traffic from being used. I've been trying to get the Ubuntu CD for over a month, and downloaded a few documentaries (one called "Route Irish," which was a good primer on what not to do during a protest), and because I believe in law, I don't like the idea of stealing the work of others, so I don't trade the RIAA's MP3s or Hollywood's movies (not that I would want to anyway... my tastes are much more refined than that). But I have a friend who told me he found and downloaded the entire "Transformers" movie in about two hours flat, only to find that it was mislabelled and home-produced gay porn. He and I are in the same neighborhood. If he can download his porn file which looked to be a copyrighted file from the outside, why can't I get my legal downloads to work? That's one drawback to net neutrality: trusting the gatekeepers.

So what's the big deal? Why is there so much hype about it? The answer is: corporate interest. The facts of the matter are that the corporations have generally been led to believe (quite incorrectly, I might add) that a neutral network means that so-called "smart" switches would not be permitted. However, the pro-neutrality people are in favor of "smart" switches, so long as they don't give favoritism to traffic based on financial considerations to or from the target site. If it was a radio station, it would already be considered illegal to do this, because this is the definition of payola in the radio system (which, admittedly, is a different medium).

However, the same logic should hold true: paying an ISP (as an example) to either throttle your competition or to not throttle your own connection with them, in addition to charging consumers to access the internet. This is precisely the kind of logic that many media industries employ in their rabid enforcement of copyright: when you take from both ends of the equation, you become rich. Except that we have a word for that. It's called exploitation.

Neutral networks mean that there is no censorship of the "slowing down traffic" kind on the net. Unlike print media, the internet requires neutrality in order to operate correctly. Simply slowing down traffic has the effect of discouraging the dissemination of information and can also be used by people such as your own political adversaries. Network neutrality requires that the flow of traffic be determined only by the limitations of the network, not the chosen limitation of commerce. However, companies do need to be able to "shape" traffic in order to manage a large network.

Oddly, this is not against network neutrality. A "smart" network is a happy network. Managed switches used ethically for the purposes of creating a network that flows smoothly and efficiently is within the interests of network neutrality, as well as corporate interests. It's when this shaping of networks becomes an excuse for limiting traffic to or from a site in the name of forcing profits that the shaping even becomes an issue. Net neutrality is about ethics reform, not about limiting the ability to ethically prioritize traffic in order to assist or increase network functionality. The concept is neutral, not anarchic.

The proponents of neutrality are sometimes criticized for not having a grip on the situation. I was trained at ITT Technical Institute (though I didn't graduate) and my last course of study was network administration. I can assure everyone: I have a very solid grip on the situation, the issue, and the consequences of both choices. And I choose neutrality because it simply makes better logical sense to protect against barriers to entry, and to promote a sound economic development of healthy competitive practices. Raising a required fee to every ISP in the world in order to ensure connectivity of one company's web site would only further the gap between the wealthy and poor companies of the world, rather than assisting in competitive practice.

To date, I have read some 400 documents about network neutrality, both for and against. Early on, I was against neutral networks because I understood that the argument was to be one of "smart" versus "unmanaged" networks. However, that argument is not, and has never been, the issue at all, in spite of the anti-neutrality folks' arguments to the contrary.

The issue of net neutrality is also not simply about consumer protection. It's about censorship. And censorship is contrary to our First Amendment. If we are to embrace democracy for our republic instead of allowing it to devolve into a despotic or fascist state, we must vigilantly protect the traditional rights our Founding Fathers laid out, with the intent in which these rights were specified.