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If Chile can, why can’t we – Net Neutrality

September 27, 2010

(This article was written by an Aquinas student, Joe Spaulding)

On July 15, 2010 mainstream national news outlets like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC were focused on reporting which candidates were leading the horse race in primaries across the U.S., as well as the implications of a somewhat grass-roots initiated Tea Party movement that had been given a surge of strength at the cost of cohesion and stability by the conservative corporate elite on the upcoming elections in November (to be fair and balanced, also had articles covering the average number of sex partners iPhone owners have and the tumor that was threatening one of the world’s largest breasts). News of the ongoing and perpetually devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the continuation of bullets flying at and from American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan was present, but sitting on the media’s back-burner.

On that “unnewsworthy” mid-summer day the government of the nation of Chile passed a law guaranteeing its citizens protection from the malicious techniques of control previously available to the Internet Services Providers that supply the 7,387,000 of the country’s 16,454,143 citizens that are online. A few technology blogs like Endgaget picked up on the story within a couple of weeks, mostly taking the tone of neo-cosmopolitan internet geeks congratulating their overseas brethren with a dash American envy of Chilean exceptionalism, wondering why it was so easy for Chile to pass these protections, but so difficult in the U.S.

This type of protection is referred to in online communities as “Net Neutrality.” It means having ISPs be legally prohibited from favoring any specific Internet content by changing the speeds at which the data gets delivered. The deciding factor is if the Internet is viewed as a utility like electricity, water, and telephone service, or if it is viewed as an information service like cable TV. Utility companies hook you up to their networks, and don’t tell you how to use your power, water, or gas. Cable companies control what channels they let you have access to, as well as establish tiered pricing for varied content. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Internet access was obviously a utility because the vast majority of the few online computers used a dial-up modem to access the online world. The advent of broadband brought two technologies that fell on either side of the FCC’s authority to ensure fair content delivery: DSL (which goes through phone lines) and Cable.

Net neutrality (or the oncoming lack of it) has massive and definite implications concerning access to information for every person on the planet, especially in countries like the U.S where a great deal of media – social, entertainment, commercial, and informative- is created, distributed from, and consumed. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota has stated that, “Net Neutrality is the 1st Amendment issue of our time.” The lack of coverage in the American media is indicative of a press that is either hateful of its readership or too tied down to corporate interests to spread word of legislation that might limit the power of their parent companies, or both. The New York Times will sometimes run a piece describing the concept, but almost never delves into the implications. Like so many stories deserving more attention, most of the text concerning net neutrality advocacy is in the margins: Tech blogs and social media aggregation sites like Reddit where Internet savvy individuals gather, socialize, and pool information.

The coverage of net neutrality is so sparse that it is not uncommon to find average citizens, politicians, and political science professors that have never heard of the terms. To understand the policy that was passed in Chile, and the effects an analogous policy could have on the U.S., it is probably best to understand the regulations regarding Internet access that make up the status quo in the U.S. Because few real regulations exist, this is a disappointingly simple task. The FCC has issued guidelines urging ISPs to not restrict any flow of any data unnecessarily, but has neither the criteria to determine what constitutes necessity, nor the power to enforce penalties for arbitrary limits on net traffic. When the FCC tried to fine Comcast for choking the bandwidth of users during peak download times in 2007 the Federal Court sided with Comcast. Until legislation makes it way through congress, the courts have transformed the FCC (when attempting to regulate ISPs) into a dog with a mild bark and no bite.

ISPs, their lawyers, and lobbyists use two ideas to try to derail fair access to the Internet; that throttling and choking bandwidth is necessary to ensure the continued flow of data without network downtimes, and that net neutrality undermines the free market in favor of government control. The first is ludicrous for two reasons. Primarily, if Comcast can afford to make a bid to purchase GE, they certainly can afford to upgrade their network capacity to handle the increased traffic. Second, because there are no real restrictions making arbitrary or malicious network manipulations illegal, there is no way to make sure ISPs do not use this power to extort money from content providers and internet subscribers alike or to block sites the ISP or its business associates find politically “unagreable.”

The second idea used to defend ISPs’ power to regulate content on the Internet is exactly backwards. Tech companies and ISPs will never need to develop more adequate network infrastructure if all that is needed to keep most of the network running smoothly is to turn down the parts of the Internet they like the least.

The beauty of the Internet in regards to American democracy is that because the content providers are the consumers of that content, the Internet helps bind all of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment into a more cohesive unit. The closer freedom of speech is tied to freedom of the press, the more power rests in individual people and not telecommunications corporations. It’s extremely difficult for a person to make a blockbuster action flick that rakes in millions of dollars unless they start off with millions of dollars, but right now, anyone get a video of their cat being adorable to go viral online for free. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast stand to make a lot of money if they can change this, and if they do it will be the average American that suffers. In any real democracy, free and fair access to information is as important to its survival as the air its citizens breathe. Congratulations Chile.

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