April 8, 2010

Do Black Folks Care About 'Net Neutrality'?

Crossposted: Wichita NAACP Blog

You should, and here’s why…

What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is the idea that the Internet should always remain an unrestricted information and communication portal. That like streets and highways, the internet should be open and available for anyone to use and that it should continue to provide an equal platform for all voices.

What are the challenges to Net Neutrality?
The challenge to Net Neutrality is that several major telecom companies (such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner) are currently seeking to monetize the internet. Access to technologies, sites, applications, and speeds, would be limited and tiered by a fee structure with the fastest speeds and best access reserved for those companies or organizations that paid a premium rate. Akin to television, where you have public access, broadcast, basic cable, and premium cable channels, these telecom companies are seeking to divide the internet along the same basic lines. Under the structure they seek to create, these telecom companies would be able to change they way you and I access the internet; providing packages that favored their sites, products, search engines, and platforms, while at the same time slowing down or limiting access to the services, sites, and applications of their competitors.

Why should I care about Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is a concept that is embedded in the way we view the internet. The Internet provides everyone who owns or has access to a computer an equal opportunity to render their thoughts and opinions into the public sphere. It is the great equalizer - giving everyone the opportunity to "tell their own story". The Internet is changing the way that we see and understand the world around us; giving us immediate access to voices, video, pictures, documents, and first-hand accounts of events. The internet does not have an editor. The internet is not concerned with market share. The internet does not use talking points. The internet does not spin. The internet is simply an open platform, where anyone who has a story can tell it, and anyone else who has an interest can listen. It is the 21st century Hyde Park speaker's corner; a true digital soapbox...

On the Internet, community organizations and ordinary citizens don't have to worry about whether or not the local paper or television stations feel their issues are "newsworthy" or if they have sufficient appeal to the larger community: This a shared space, where we each can speak to our respective constituencies without having to meet the approval of some editorial board or telecom company, and without having to pay to speak. Our voices and our stories are posted on equal footing, using the same technologies, which are accessible at the same speeds, and available to the same audience, as those posted by national media organizations, government officials, or the Telecom companies themselves.

Currently, the Internet allows everyone to speak freely with no gatekeepers deciding which voices should be amplified and which others should be silenced. Money does not enhance your message, nor does the lack of money diminish it. There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites should be freely accessible, and which should have limited access. There are no gatekeepers deciding whose data and content will run fast and whose should run slowly. There are no financial limitations on speakers and content providers (ordinary people like you and I). There is no overseer to decide if you'd paid enough money to host those videos, or to post those pictures. But the plans proposed by the telecom companies would change all that. Under the guise of honoring the "free market", the Telecom companies and their supporters seek to introduce fee structures, tiered access, and content packaging. This is why we need Net Neutrality.

What do opponents say about Net Neutrality?
The "Government Takeover" Argument: Critics argue that Net Neutrality legislation represents a 'government takeover' of the Internet. They claim that the Internet is now a Free Market System and should be allowed to continue in its current state without Government interference. The obvious problem with this argument is that the Telecom companies have made it clear that they do not want to see the Internet continue in its current state. They are proposing a change to a tiered system as I have described above. Net Neutrality legislation would not "take over the Internet" and change it to a new system; it would simply safeguard the system we currently have. It would codify the principles of an open and free Internet into law and prevent Internet providers from blocking, speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination.

The "Corporate Welfare" Argument: Groups like Hands off the Internet and NetCompetition.org argue that Net Neutrality is akin to a corporate welfare scheme that would benefit the Silicon Valley crowd; forcing everyone to subsidize the expansion of bandwidth and capacity which in turn Silicon Valley would use sans the costs of development. They argue that speed and capacity are expensive so those who need it should pay for it. In other words, pay to play - let everyone have access to the net but scale their speed and capacity according to their 'need' and budget. That way the Silicon Valley crowd could have their lighting fast connection speeds because they'd be paying for them, smaller companies could purchase the speed and capacity they needed on a lesser scale, and ordinary folks could have a 'level of access' suitable for our need and budget. (Again, think television: Premium Channels, Basic Cable, Network Television, and Public Access). The problem with this argument is that it assumes that people are merely 'content consumers' and not 'content providers'. The real power of the internet is that it allows ordinary citizens to be content providers. Its one thing to offer lower bandwidth and slower speeds for downloads and surfing, but when you think in terms of content providers (people who use blogs, social networks, web sites, you tube etc) scaling their bandwidth and speed to match their bank accounts artificially prioritizes some voices over others. Those with money would speak louder; their voices heard faster, their messages accessed easier, their messages better enabled with video and streaming content. Those without money would be relegated to the cyberspace equivalent of public television; Slow uploads, poorly enabled, with lesser capacity and lessened access.

Next Steps?
The first step is to educate yourself. You should begin by reading HR3458 - The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009. Please, take the time to read the whole text, because to effectively advocate for the bill, we must fully understand it. The telecom companies have already spent millions of dollars to lobby Congress and the FCC against Net Neutrality, so it's critical that we understand not only why the bill is important, but also why our opponents are wrong.

Second, you should contact your Representative to let them know that you support Net Neutrality and that you want them to vote in favor of HR3458.

And lastly, stay informed... Visit savetheinternet.com and sign the petition; add your voice to the 1.6 million people who have already come out in favor of Net Neutrality...


msladydeborah said...

I am glad to see other Black bloggers raising this issue. I have been following the developments around net nutrality.

We have to recognize that the inter net allows us to have access to people all over the world. The beauty of this medium is the freedom that we all have as users.

I am not pro-being limited to what corporations believe is suitable for me as a consumer. Nor do I feel comfortable with the possibility that at some point in time my published voice may be limited or even censored because of what I have to say.

Villager said...

Lady D - We need to continue raising awareness about this issue. Silence may result in our loss of free use of the Internet. I'm trying to get BDPA to take a stance like Kevin did with his state NAACP organization...