There’s a battle raging for a key 21st century resource, a push and pull over who controls it and what philosophies drive it. That resource is, of course, the Internet, the network of networks that is the pulse of modern life.
Established with tax payer dollars, expanded with private investment, stretched in new directions by worldwide virtual communities, managed to generate profit by corporations, this river of commerce keeps spinning off industries unimagined a generation ago -- while simultanously shaping into a place for the express of thought, of civic engagment, and of basic human interconnectedness.
Is accessing it a human right? Do all have an equal right to move content around it? Or is it the property of industry, whose right is to control it for profit?
These questions are at the hub of a debate over a set of principles called net neutrality, based on the central premise that traffic moving through the network should be equal and that operators can’t discriminate on what they carry.
In 2008, Comcast was penalized by the FCC for violating the FCC’s Internet access principles. The FCC ruled that the cable company was interfering with peer-to-peer traffic on its broadband network, and being "invasive" in its network traffic management.
"Would you be OK with the post office opening your mail, deciding they didn't want to bother delivering it, and hiding that fact by sending it back to you stamped, 'address unknown -- return to sender?'" then FCC-Chair Kevin Martin said. "Or, if they opened letters mailed to you, decided that because the mail truck is full sometimes, letters to you could wait, and then hid both that they read your letters and delayed them? Unfortunately, that is exactly what Comcast was doing with their subscribers' Internet traffic."
Comcast countered that it was merely managing the flow of traffic on its network and that this is its right.
Is the Internet a shared resource open to all? Or a private resource best run in private?
This month, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski publicly embraced that the concepts of net neutrality. “It is vital that we safeguard the free and open Internet,” he said in a speech that both reaffirmed the four principles previously embraced by the FCC and added two new ones.
The first four principles say that consumers must be able to access legal Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, and attach non-harmful devices to the network.
The two new ones articulated by Genachowski would prevent access providers from discriminating against any content or applications, while allowing for reasonable network management, and would ensure that access providers are transparent about their network management practices.
Again returning us to that unanswered question: Is the network a public resource? Or a private one?
Just prior to the speech, Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, announced he was signing on as a co-sponsor of Rep. Edward Markey's (D-MA) net neutralit bill, The Internet Freedom Preservation Act. And in this last week of September, in a Washington Post interview, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) are considering legislation to advance the adoption of new rules on net neutrality.
The details of the debate can get pretty darn esoteric, and veer into head-spinning debates over network management techniques. It can also get highly emotional, with pro-neutrality forces flaming carriers as being everything from destroyers of democracy to evil money-grubbing monopolists.
The root of all this lies in the Internet’s mixed heritage of public-private development and intensified by the central role it ahs so quickly grown to play.
Companies that were spawned because the Internet was open to all are quick to point out that net neutrality supports competition and economic health. In an open letter, Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote:
Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody - no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional - has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to chose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay. Creativity, innovation, and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight.
Those are strong words. Those are fighting words. Those are words that suggest that the Internet is a public interest investment, there for the public good.
That notion of the public good is a quaint concept, one that has been bludgeoned out of favor over the past 30 years. But maybe it is time to re-think that a little and to take the concept and re-examine it in the face of the 21st century.
Is the Internet part of the larger public good? If so, net neutrality would seem to flow naturally.
Does this impede an operator’s ability to make money? Not at all. But it does prevent the asset from flowing to the highest bidder first. It means that information isn’t given priority based on the pocket book of its sender. It means that the recording industry and the movie industry, two strong opponents of net neutrality, can’t use their profits to buy preferred space in the network and block competition.
In a perfect world, net neutrality wouldn’t need to be legislated. It would be the obvious way to manage the Internet. But we don’t live in that world. We live in one where petty debates and dollar driven decisions are the norm. It is all about the money.
We also live in a world where information is increasingly digital, where online literacy is nearly as important as reading literacy, where the connective glue of the larger “us” is the Internet. When you balance that against the need of a small handful of powerful interest to hang onto a monopoly of access and information, the picture grows clearer.
Regardless of what legislation ultimately passes, the fact that the FCC is taking a strong stand sends a powerful message, which is this: the Internet belongs to us all.