Sleepwalking Towards A Closed Internet?

advocating-net-neutralityThe ecologist Garrett Hardin is best known for his famous essay ‘The Tragedy Of The Commons’.  In it, he reasoned that, since we are driven by self-interest, it is only human nature to try to take the most out of a shared utility:

“…this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

The internet is – for the moment – such a shared utility, governed by some important principles. One of these is the concept of ‘net neutrality’: that no knowledge or service shall be privileged before any other. When campaigning for the US presidency in 2007, Barrack Obama explained why preserving net neutrality was vital in a democracy:

“I will take a back seat to no-one in my commitment to network neutrality because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The internet is perhaps the most open network in history and we have to keep it that way.”

As Bill Moyers argues in the clip below,  it looks at though the president has indeed taken a back seat. His Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing  a ‘two-speed’ internet for the US – and as we all know, what happens in America today, often spreads around the globe tomorrow. In a new proposal,currently out for public consultation providers, like Netflix (assuming they were willing to pay a premium) would get access to a ‘fast lane’ provided by cable providers – Comcast and others.  Those who couldn’t pay would find their voices ‘squeezed out’.

Bill Moyers Essay: What Happened to Obama’s Promised Net Neutrality? from on Vimeo.

So, an important precedent is in danger of being established, and the gatekeepers are on the side of the near-monopolistic corporations  who govern access to the internet.

Around the world governments are being urged by advocates of an open internet to enshrine into law the principle of net neutrality. Some East Asian and South American countries have acted, while others (including the UK) appear to support the differentiated speeds and services that go with fast and slow broadband lanes. Indeed the UK currently seems to be leading the way in riding roughshod over personal freedoms. Last week the coalition government (with opposition support) rushed through, in a single day, legislation which increases government powers of surveillance and data retention. The act, known as the DRIP act (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) has been widely criticised by civil rights campaigners, authors, even the UN Human Rights boss. But public outcry on both DRIP and the FCC proposal, appears to be in short supply – why?

There appears to be a common tactic in both cases: bore the public to death. TV presenters Charlie Brooker and John Oliver both rumbled the arcane and tedious language used to switch off even well-informed citizens.  Make it as tedious as possible, then they’ll assume if it were important, somebody else would be jumping up and down, right? Oliver, to his credit, shows how using humour and plain speaking can both educate and agitate. The brilliant clip below has, at the time of writing, had almost 5 million views. The day after John Oliver’s programme aired, the FCC servers crashed under the weight of comments being made. The have now extended the consultation period until September.

My book takes an unashamedly optimistic view of  our capacity to take more control of our lives through free and open means of communication. But I also caution against the danger of having those means taken from us by stealth – the battle for control of the internet will require constant vigilance, people like Oliver who can see chicanery buried beneath arcanery, and all of us to protest loudly when those freedoms are being stolen from under our noses.

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