Opinion: Why Net Neutrality Matters

The Internet has now saturated our lives. We bank using it, shop using it, keep in touch with friends and family using it, do business using it, educate and enrich our lives with it. We have (almost) free and (almost) unfettered access to the sum of human knowledge, growing larger as the Internet and human knowledge itself grow larger…

In the US there is the Bill of Rights, protected under the Constitution. In Europe there is the Human Rights Convention for EU member states – and equivalents in many other territories.

There is an argument that access to the Internet itself should be one of our basic rights. Neither of these statutes includes a definition of our rights on the Internet -yet. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Internet Service Providers currently serve up pages without deciding what we, the audience, should actually get and without giving anyone preferential treatment. ‘One-Man-and-a-Dog Ltd.’ has the potential to to reach across the ‘net as far as ‘ACME-Mega-Products Inc..’ I can trade in the same on-line space as IBM in Rochester and Jose Padilla in Manila. Spend what you like on branding, marketing, design and scale, but no business should receive preferential treatment in how its’ on-line product is delivered; the rest of us should suffer no relegation to smaller data pipes, throttling, traffic shaping, blocking or surcharging. Everyone around the globe has access to the same Internet and even the smallest entrepreneurs are on equal footing with the leading global enterprises.

But for how much longer?

Major cable and Internet companies (often one in the same) are pressuring regulators and legislators to create fast lanes and slow lanes on the Information Superhighway. Recently Google and Verizon requested net neutrality exemption for wireless Internet – ignoring fixed-line copper, mobile is where it’s at. Other providers are lobbying hard to surcharge services such as Netflix whilst promoting their own equivalent pay-TV and movie services whilst partnered with major studio corporations.

This is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Small businesses’ on-line presence is in serious jeopardy. Supposing the providers offer fast lane access to corporations that pay to hasten traffic to and from their websites? Who will the majority of customers use –  the big fast corporate site, or the slow, slow mom-and-pop store website? Particularly if it’s over a wireless data connection, needed there and then, in the office, on the bus, outside the mall or the concert venue?

Net neutrality has been an enabler of competition, innovation, and fundamental freedoms in digital space. Those are the same reasons why we have the EU Competition Commission and the Anti-Trust Acts in the US. Previous generations have fought long and hard against restraint of trade. A neutral Internet ensures that users face no conditions limiting access to applications and services. Similarly, it prevents discrimination against the source, destination or content of the information transmitted over the network.

However, net neutrality is now under the threat of telecoms operators and content industries that see business opportunities in discriminating, filtering or prioritizing information flowing through the network.

New products are emerging from the low-level carriers. *Products which “…make it possible for your wireless provider to monitor everything you do on-line through traffic analysis and charge you extra for using Facebook, Skype or Netflix.”

“For instance… a Vodafone user would be charged two cents per megabyte for using Facebook, three Euros a month to use Skype and $0.50 monthly for a speed-limited version of YouTube. But traffic to Vodafone’s services would be free, allowing the mobile carrier to create video services that could undercut NetFlix on price.”

You may not care about commerce. You may agree with me that if you want an extra level of service and you can pay for it, then go ahead. We might have to argue over the definition of ‘extra.’

Now suppose we’re looking at opinions, not commerce. Let’s say News International, Fox News, Monsanto and Exxon Oil have all paid to be on the Internet fast lane, as members of the Internet Executive VIP Club, whilst websites and forums belonging to certain independent parties and lobby groups have not; consumer rights groups, conservationists, health-and-safety campaigners, anti-pollution lobbyists, independent councilors or congressmen. No one’s denied their right to free-speech, but suddenly their message is traffic-shaped and filtered to a point where no one can see it – the forums, webinars and video streams are no longer viable.

A scare story? Let’s hope so. Net neutrality matters. No sleep-walking, now. AJS

*Source: Ryan Singley, Wired Epicentre

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