June 04, 2006

Controlling the Net

Check out last week’s discussion of Net Neutrality

Save the Internet: Click here

When the internet burst on the scene in the 90s it was a classic demonstration of free market economics as companies big and small, new and well established, competed like crazy for their share of cyberspace. It was the most competition the American economy has seen in years.

The same thing happened in the political sphere. And the combination of e-mail and websites made the net a great organizing tool. Advocacy groups get people signed up for e-mail lists that deliver action plans direct to your desktop. Websites give more information and people are urged to pass along these messages to their friends and get them involved too. Bloggers and alternative media sites can deliver a very focused message. Grassroots democracy got a real shot in the arm. These tools are being used by all political viewpoints. It has fostered a competitive marketplace of ideas that is available for anybody to search out.

I didn’t even mention the purely social aspects of the net, which are huge and all sorts of information (true and not so true) that people share over the net in a way that we couldn’t even imagine a decade or two ago. Plenty of people are finding ways to make money facilitating that as well. Plenty of others are just using it for all that it is worth.

Now that we have it, there is a feeling that this is the only way that things could have turned out. The internet as a force of nature. Actually, it was designed to be a structure that is free and open...the information superhighway that would allow anybody to go anywhere they want to go. The idea was to facilitate precisely the kind of competition and innovation we have seen. It succeeded beyond anybody's wildest dreams precisely because of that openness and lack of centralized control.

The internet could have been set up differently, as a more centralized way for companies to deliver content to consumers. Then it might have ended up more like cable TV for instance. Now, cable as a model isn’t terrible. It just doesn’t offer the innovation and flexibility and democracy that we get from an open internet.

China presents an interesting example of more centralized control over the net. They are trying to use their government control over internet portals to limit political opposition. In this case they try to filter out politically objectionable sites, much as filters here try to block spam or porn. Their idea of objectionable isn’t written down anywhere but encompasses discussions of Tibetan independence, Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and the BBC.

Western companies have come under criticism for helping China control the net in this way. They argue that the tools they provide are basically the same as firewalls and filters that any large network needs. They aren’t responsible for what the Chinese government does with these tools. In any case they figure it is the price they pay for doing business in China. The Chinese market is growing rapidly as they move rapidly into the digital age. China has more people online than any other country except the United States.

In addition to sophisticated filtering, China has established a principle that any website or access provider is responsible for monitoring the content they make available. A crackdown a few years ago closed a number of internet cafes and installed sophisticated filters in others that block 500,000 sites and report people to the police who attempt to access them. This is much more effective than having government officials try to monitor everything. Providers will tend to err on the side of caution to avoid being shut down or even prosecuted. It is difficult to maintain this level of control and some people just put up sites that they know will be shut down in the hope that they will attract an audience in the interim. Still, Amnesty International has documented 33 people who have been imprisoned for using the internet to circulate or download information. Amnesty also reports that China “aims to use advanced information and communication technology to strengthen police control in China and a massive surveillance database system will reportedly provide access to records of every citizen.”

Similar efforts in the US haven’t gotten very far, yet. Schools and libraries routinely restrict access to sites they think are objectionable. Pornography is the usual target but I have heard rumors that schools are restricting access to blogs in general as well. Apparently they think it is a waste of time for students who are supposed to be studying. There have also been attempts, unsuccessful so far, to hold providers here responsible for objectionable content on their servers, which sparked accusations of suppression of free speech. And of course the NSA has been analyzing internet activity as part of their “war against terrorism”. The FBI asked Service Providers to maintain records of everybody’s activity on the net for two years so they can track every site you visited and the searches you made and who you email.

Here corporate telecommunications companies control the portals and without net neutrality there is nothing to stop them from exercising the same kinds of control as the Chinese. The difference would be in the types of sites they don’t like. Right now they are asserting the right to restrict high speed access to companies that pay for the privilege. They could decide to block anti-corporate sites or sites they think are unpatriotic. It’s downright un-American.

Here is a petition to help persuade Congress to preserve Net Neutrality.

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