Big business and intrusive government want to control and monitor what you read, watch and listen to.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published May 26, 2006
American telecommunications companies and their allies are now engaged in a vigorous battle against network neutrality. Net neutrality "centers on the idea that broadband [Internet] providers must not be permitted to favor some Web sites or Internet services over others". It is one of the Internet's basic principles: data is transmitted over the Internet without preference for one source over another.
The principle of net neutrality in the United States is now the target of a campaign waged largely by telecommunications companies and their network hardware suppliers. They want it gone.
Their association is called Hands off the Internet. To go with their hip and independent image, they've even produced an "indy" Flash commercial, which had the misfortune of being featured as Mediacitizen's Lie of the Week.
It all seems so dry and technical, even irrelevant. Who cares what the telcos do, as long as we still have fast access to the sites and services we enjoy?
This, as it turns out, is precisely the issue. These corporations want to eliminate net neutrality so they can build Internet toll roads instead of our public information superhighway. A failure to pay the toll shuttles data onto what Internet pioneer Vint Cerf calls a "dirt road", while the content of those rich enough to pay sails smoothly by. (Vint Cerf works for Google as their "Chief Internet Evangelist"; Google favours net neutrality).
This toll is on top of the substantial fees individuals and companies already pay to use the Internet. In fact, this issue isn't just about money. It's also about control, and thus about power.
On December 17, 2005, President Bush responded to reports that he had authorized the National Security Agency of the United States (NSA) to eavesdrop on the communications of people in the United States, including Americans, without warrants:
In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks.
Fast-forward six months to May 11, 2006, when USA Today reported that the NSA has been collecting data on the phone calls of Americans:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.
The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans - most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.
The "largest database ever assembled in the world" may not include recordings of the conversations, but it does include the time, duration, and phone numbers of each call.
The three telecommunications companies linked to the NSA program provide phone service to more than 200 million US customers. Qwest, another major US telco, refused to comply with the NSA's request because it viewed it as unlawful. The US Security Exchange Commission later indicted Joseph Naccio, Qwest's CEO, on charges of fraud.
Meanwhile, the FBI is seeking the phone records of journalists involved in leaks of secret information - like the one that revealed the existence of the NSA's phone record collection in the first place - in order to identify their sources. Given the close cooperation between US agencies on national security, will the FBI gain access - or do they have it already - to the NSA's massive database of telephone calls?
If they do, Bush's secret surveillance program will have gone from monitoring "al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations" to journalists in just six months.
The issues surrounding network neutrality and government surveillance and data-mining programs intersect with corporate desire for strict copyright controls and digital rights management (DRM). This is a confluence of big business and intrusive government that wants to control and monitor what you read, watch and listen to.
This is about what the Internet will look like years from now. On the one hand, a multiplication of today's varied, colourful web, or perhaps something we can't even imagine. On the other, a new version of television.
Carl Stjernfeldt, a partner in a venture capital firm that focuses on technology companies, made that precise comparison: "If you are Disney, you pay a significantly cheaper fee to get your content delivered by the cable companies, but if a startup came out with a cable channel, it will be pretty expensive to put it on the cable network."
Remarkably, Stjernfeldt was speaking against net neutrality when he made this comment. But of course, a scenario that discourages innovative newcomers to the Internet in favour of established corporations is precisely what many defenders of net neutrality are frightened of.
Viewed from a little farther away, in context, getting rid of net neutrality seems like just the first step in what could be a march to a very different Internet.
A recent report by the Telecommunications Policy Review Panel, established by the federal Liberals in 2005 to "conduct a review of Canada's telecommunications framework," notes, "there is a growing concern that increasingly deregulated telecommunications service providers could, for strategic competitive reasons, decide to block or limit access to some Internet applications and content," and recommends, essentially, net neutrality.
This was apparently seen as necessary in addition to Canada's Telecommunications Act, section 27 (2), which says a telco may not "unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage." For more, read The Roots of Net Neutrality Rules in Canada and Net Neutrality Bandwagon Gathers Steam by Mark Evans.
Michael Geist discusses Canadian net neutrality and the negative attitude of some Canadian telcos towards third-party Voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephone service in The Search for Net Neutrality.
This issue impacts Canadians in other ways, due to our close ties with the United States. Many Canadians rely on American companies for a wide variety of Internet services, like search, web-based email and some of the world's most innovative community-driven Internet services. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks like BitTorrent would also be profoundly affected, since there is no one to pay the toll for P2P if net neutrality vanishes.