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    Why the Future of Online Speech Depends on Net Neutrality

    by Clothilde Le Coz
    October 29, 2009

    Late last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was seeking public input on draft rules that would codify and supplement existing Internet openness principles. This was another chapter in the ongoing “Net neutrality” debate.

    On one hand, the White House was calling for a “free and open Internet” and endorsed a bill called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Yet, at the same time, the European Union adopted a telecommunications policy that rejects these principles. Have European democracies given up on Net neutrality?

    Many countries already openly violate the principle of Internet neutrality by blocking access to online publications that displease them. For example, the commander of the Iranian “special forces for moral security” said on Feb. 8, 2009 that “identifying banned websites and arresting Internet users that go on them is one of [its] responsibilities.” It was the first time the country’s police had spoken publicly about Internet censorship. The thought that European countries could enact their own forms of Internet censorship is highly troubling.

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    Net Neutrality in the U.S.

    Net neutrality means equal access to the same Internet for all, and the right, once access has been obtained, to access whatever content is available without restrictions. No Internet company, be they an access provider or search engine, should be able to discriminate, prioritize or filter website content or information transmission. (For more on Net neutrality issues in the U.S., see this MediaShift guide.)

    Net neutrality also means banning regulations that impose discretionary or arbitrary controls on bandwidth use, except when the security of the Internet or its users is threatened, or to deal with temporary technical problems. The Internet should transmit information without reference to its origin or destination. Users should be free to decide which content they want to access.

    By calling for public input on draft rules to guarantee Net neutrality, the FCC is contributing to the re-establishment of civil liberties that our organization, Reporters Without Borders, is witnessing under the Obama administration. Our most recent World Press Freedom Index for 2009, which was published on Oct. 20, made note of the progress the United States had made in the last year. The country jumped 16 places thanks to the decisions made by the administration to facilitate access to information for American citizens, and in part due to the president expressing his views on the role reporters play in society.

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    However, when it comes to Net neutrality, mobile phone companies and Internet service providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are blocking access to peer-to-peer networks, Skype and even some newsgroups. These Internet services threaten the short-term profitability for mobile phone service operators. AT&T recently decided to allow Internet telephony applications like Skype, but only on its 3G mobile phone network.

    Europe Takes a Step Backward

    Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the consequences of the European Union’s adoption of its so-called Telecoms Package. In a press released published on Oct. 21, we noted that “the European Council is allowing Internet operators to haphazardly determine the use of bandwidth as they see fit.” By rejecting Net neutrality, the European Union is challenging the principle of equality.


    Watch an interview with Squaring the Net, an organization dedicating to preserving Net neutrality

    Non-discrimination is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It derives from the principle of free expression: that everyone has the equal right to express their views. Net neutrality will help secure this principle on the Internet. By moving away from Net neutrality, the EU is allowing Internet service providers and other companies to violate the principle of free expression.

    (Read more about how Vodafone’s porn filter blocked innocent Czech tech blogs on its mobile web service.)

    The new Telecoms Package means companies will be allowed to steer users toward content and services that have paid a premium for the privilege. It is likely that small online publications, particularly blogs, will be relegated to a second class Internet. This means that websites without financial means could disappear from the radar of many users, much to the benefit of large content providers.

    The future of free speech is inextricably tied to the ways in which individuals are permitted to use the Internet. For this reason, it’s paramount that people work to advocate for Net neutrality in the United States and other countries around the world.

    Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

    Tagged: EU europe fcc free speech freedom of speech net neutrality
    • Brett Glass

      Actually, the EU is ahead of the United States. It has been much more savvy, recognizing that so-called “network neutrality” rules are actually being advocated by large corporations (Google in particular) which do not have the public interest in mind but want to give themselves a business advantage. Internet search monopolist Google is spending hundreds of millions of dollars — something that it obviously would not do out of the goodness of its heart — to promote these regulations.

      “Network neutrality” regulations would prevent ISPs from selling key services that would allow startup companies to compete with big ones like Google — hence the reason why Google is in favor of the regulations. What’s more, the regulations would raise the price of Internet service, hurt the quality of that service, deter competition, and limit consumer choice. It is good to see that — as in other areas, such as antitrust issues involving Microsoft — the EU recognizes when corporate influence is at work.

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    • Michael Matthews

      No regulation on the Internet is good. Let it be what it is, which is not perfect but free, and represents freedom. Who wants to take away American freedom?

    • Abernathy

      Brett Glass made me choke on my coffee. It must be a parody. No one can truly be that earnest about how Comcast and AT&T are looking out for us.

      Just in case: Net Neutrality is the way it’s been for the past 40 years. If we keep it that way, there will be more garage, or dorm-room, startups like Google and Microsoft.

    • Brett Glass

      Sorry, Abernathy; I hope that you did not stain your shirt. I did not say that AT&T and Comcast are “looking out for us” (though, in fact, they have far more incentive to do so than Google, because they are in fiercely competitive businesses and need to keep customers happy. Google is a monopoly and does not).

      You are also incorrect when you say that “Net Neutrality is the way it’s been for the past 40 years.” The fact is that the Internet has NEVER BEEN NEUTRAL. (If you don’t believe me, type the terms “Internet” and “never been neutral” into your favorite search engine, and watch as hundreds of hits pop up in which people with all points of view confirm this.) What the Internet has been — amazingly — is unregulated. And this lack of regulation is what has allowed it to grow, develop, and flourish. But large corporations, seeking to lock in a business advantage, are now seeking to regulate it — and have latched onto the buzzphrases “network neutrality” and “open Internet” (which have no single definition; each lobbyist defines them differently) and are preaching doom and gloom if these things are not “preserved.” (It’s an interesting bit of doublespeak, since in fact it’s the regulation they advocate that would destroy the wondrous character of the Internet as we know it today.) So, wake up, take another sip of that coffee, and look past the propaganda. There is no problem which “network neutrality” regulation would solve; in fact, the regulations would cause serious problems. Think for yourself and don’t buy into the hype.

    • OK, I’ll bite, Brett: What are the “serious problems” that Net neutrality regulation would cause? The FCC’s proposed rules provide plenty of loopholes for the telecoms to continue to control bandwidth usage and charge more for heavy users.

    • The Donald

      People on here should know that Brett Glass has been paid by some of the biggest phone and cable companies to be a thorn in the side of the net neutrality proponents. They gave him explicit instructions to slime anyone associated with this fight as being agents of Google. He’s on almost any blog on this topic spreading his anti-Google gospel, telling people funny lies like the broadband market is “fiercely competitive.” He is a troll — ignore him and he will go away.

    • Brett Glass is flat-out wrong.

      Google and Microsoft already pay “metering” fees — that is, they pay more for bandwidth than a firm with 1/1000th of their bandwidth usage. No one (that I know of) is saying that network neutrality means that the cost of transmitting 1GB of data should be the same as the cost of 1TB.

      What network neutrality means is that Comcast can’t privilege its bits over bits from Blip.TV.

      “Network neutrality” would be better framed as “non-discrimination” — just like Verizon, for example, can’t privilege Verizon phone calls over T-Mobile’s or AT&T’s. (Geeks should not name things.)

      We need all infrastructure owners (cable, fiber, copper) to be considered “common carriers” — not just the telecos. This would mean that they would have to lease their infrastructure to other organizations and they would not be able discriminate based on the origin of a bit.

      That’s not the case in the U.S. today. The cable industry has successfully convinced Congress that they should be exempt from common carrier law. The resulting law — someone probably has calculated how many millions in lobbying it cost — gives them an economic (competitive) advantage over telecos as that “last mile wire” becomes our pipe to our connection with the rest of the world: “television” and “movies” and “phone service” and “newspapers” and “radio” — and-and-and.

      We have to separate content (the bits that represent text, photos, sound, moving pictures) from the delivery channel. That’s in part because we (society) can’t afford to have competing infrastructure: multiple “cable” or “fiber” wires on each-and-every neighborhood street. That sort of competition is economically inefficient: infrastructure is characterized by very high fixed costs relatively low marginal costs (the cost of attaching the line to one-more-house).

      Arghhhh!

    • Brett Glass is flat-out wrong.

      Google and Microsoft already pay “metering” fees — that is, they pay more for bandwidth than a firm with 1/1000th of their bandwidth usage. No one (that I know of) is saying that network neutrality means that the cost of transmitting 1GB of data should be the same as the cost of 1TB.

      What network neutrality means is that Comcast can’t privilege its bits over bits from Blip.TV.

      “Network neutrality” would be better framed as “non-discrimination” — just like Verizon, for example, can’t privilege Verizon phone calls over T-Mobile’s or AT&T’s. (Geeks should not name things.)

      We need all infrastructure owners (cable, fiber, copper) to be considered “common carriers” — not just the telecos. This would mean that they would have to lease their infrastructure to other organizations and they would not be able discriminate based on the origin of a bit.

      That’s not the case in the U.S. today. The cable industry has successfully convinced Congress that they should be exempt from common carrier law. The resulting law — someone probably has calculated how many millions in lobbying it cost — gives them an economic (competitive) advantage over telecos as that “last mile wire” becomes our pipe to our connection with the rest of the world: “television” and “movies” and “phone service” and “newspapers” and “radio” — and-and-and.

      We have to separate content (the bits that represent text, photos, sound, moving pictures) from the delivery channel. That’s in part because we (society) can’t afford to have competing infrastructure: multiple “cable” or “fiber” wires on each-and-every neighborhood street. That sort of competition is economically inefficient: infrastructure is characterized by very high fixed costs relatively low marginal costs (the cost of attaching the line to one-more-house).

      Arghhhh!

    • Chris

      I wanted to provide you with some additional information on the effects of net neutrality regulations for readers of Internet Evolution.

      Several recent articles have discussed the impact that such regulations could have on jobs and the continued expansion of broadband. Although I support the goal of a free and open internet, we should not enter into regulations without considering their effects.

      For your reference, in regards to the effects of regulations on minority access to broadband, The Hudson Valley Press published: Bringing the Internet to every home in America, East Texas Review published this article: Net Neutrality not good for minorities or anyone else and Broadband Census.com released this coverage of a recent summit on net neutrality in DC: Summit speakers want more Broadband access for Minorities, criticize Net Neutrality.

      Additionally, papers are publishing articles and letters to the editor like this one in the Evansville Courier and Press in Indiana, calling for a halt to regulations before more jobs are lost.

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