The Death of Net Neutrality

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“Net neutrality” was designed into the Internet by its creators. The concept was to provide a world wide network that could efficiently transfer large amounts of binary data in near real-time without regard to what the data meant or who originated it.

by Wayne Cole

The network would be content and user agnostic, treating all data and users the same — a classless, completely democratic “e-society.”

That approach spurred R&D and small business innovation that brought e-mail, the Word Wide Web, online professional and social forums, plus huge stores of readily accessible news and reference information that transcended international boundaries. More recently it has lead to voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications like Internet phone services, telepresence applications and rich media delivery to the desktop both in real-time and in background.

Internet-enabled TV sales are expected to top 28 million by the end of this year. And in these technologies lay the seeds of net neutrality’s death.

Innovations from Internet upstarts like Napster, Vonage and Skype challenge the core business of the megalithic telcos that own the Internet backbone and those that own or have the distribution rights for much of the content that is online. So those who became Internet megaliths on the back of net neutrality — Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, etc. — clearly have a vested interest in joining the telcos to kill net neutrality to prevent newer “upstarts” from competing with them.

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A protest sign at a Net Neutrality rally in Rochester, N.Y. Photo by Thomas Belknap. Used under a Creative Commons license. ‘CORPOCRACY’ V. DEMOCRACY

“Secret” negotiations between the telcos, Internet portal and application providers have been onagain, off-again for a few years, sometimes with FCC participation and sometimes without.

But the tipping point that seems to have gotten the Internet behemoths to join the telcos in calling for the end of net neutrality was the shift toward corporate friendliness of the Supreme Court as indicated by recent decisions on eminent domain, campaign finance and, in particular, the Comcast data throttling case.

Corporations now have their Constitutional rights as individuals guaranteed, while they are legally prohibited from shouldering the responsibilities and exhibiting the lawful/moral conduct required of individual citizens.

With all three branches of government seemingly under the corporation’s spell, the push to socialize debt and responsibility while privatizing corporate profit and privilege is accelerating. This means that net neutrality will soon be dead despite the public comments from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the Obama administration to the contrary.

Even though Google and Verizon’s announced agreement will supposedly set aside net neutrality only for mobile operations, the goal is clearly to kill it altogether.

Mobile Internet apps and content use the Internet backbone to get data to the “final mile” segments — cell towers and Wi-Fi antennas used by smart phones and laptops. The right to “prioritize” data created by mobile app and content providers (for a prioritizing fee, of course) has to, by its very nature, involve throttling down non-prioritized data flows on the backbone.

The idea is that the telcos can provide the faster service demanded of today’s corporate Internet user without developing new technology and infrastructure, but merely by changing the marketing model. That means the Internet will become a tiered system with “upper-classes” receiving privileged communication speeds and accessibility for their data.

The costs for such privileged treatment, of course, will be passed on to the non-privileged users as it has in the past (the U.S. has the highest cost for broadband service while it is 22nd in overall speed and falling further behind in Internet infrastructure innovation and expansion), according to Web server management firm Akamai.

THE NET EFFECT

The very government that created the Internet will likely have to pay through the nose to exempt its traffic from delays that allow the Microsoft/Google/Time Warner/et al. privileged data to have “right-of-way” through all transfer points.

Just as drug companies are protected by law from having to negotiate prices with the government, expect telcos to get the same “favored” status for pricing Internet goods and services for governments at all levels.

Individual tax payers will ultimately foot the bill not only in increased taxes but fewer services, and smaller public safety departments as cash-strapped municipalities and states get forced to pay out more for their Internet services which heretofore represented modest expenditures due to net neutrality.

Local broadcast operations will suffer as well. Those dependent for survival on advertising revenues from linkage to station web services will no longer be able to command the ad rates to support the “priority” payments that would insure their content is not delivered so slowly that users give up in frustration when accessing it.

These stations will either go dark or be absorbed by megaliths like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. PBS and similar outlets of real, non-partisan news, so essential for a true democracy, would likely be priced into extinction by the “favored” content providers.

DUMB TERMINAL

The lower classes (i.e., everyone with a budget smaller than Google, Microsoft, News Corp., etc.) will see a slower Internet, with more of the basic applications now found on your desktop available only “in the cloud” over the Internet.

Users will be hit with a pay-per-use pricing model. For example, to type out a memo you might need Internet access to a text editor app which you may pay for with a monthly fee (the “unlimited” plan) or you may pay for by the keystroke. Every app hosted on this corporatized Internet will require some type of “plan” payment like those that now exist for cell phone services.

Your desktop computer will, in effect, become like the dumb terminals of the 1970s time-sharing systems, only with a meter running and constantly tapping your credit card or bank account as you type.

The demise of net neutrality is not some theoretical issue that “doesn’t affect me.” It will truly signal the end of many of the rights we take for granted, and will accelerate the transfer of civil governance to profit motivated corporations that have no national, societal, regional or human loyalties. Their only “responsibility” is to make more money.

In countries where governments have restricted Internet access based on ideology, we have seen the damage that these single-minded, understaffed entities can inflict on the democratic free flow of ideas.

To paraphrase Ben Kingsley’s character in the 1992 movie, “Sneakers,” power rests not with who controls the bullets (or money), but with who controls the information.

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