Friday, September 17, 2010

Net Neutrality - A Tougher Issue Thank You Think

Net Neutrality has been a hot topic for a while. The fear that corporations would bundle each and every website into 'packages' like cable TV is enough to scare most people into supporting net neutrality at face value, but is that the only side to the argument that the American people need be concerned with? Is this the only thing we have to be afraid of?


There are more than two sides to this story this time around. We have in one corner, the service providers who would love to squeeze every extra ounce of cash from the internet as possible (the blessing and curse of capitalism). In the next corner, you have the government. They tend to gradually grow, consuming private businesses and private interests "for our own good" in each industry they become involved. Then they waste a ton of money on them, use them as political weapons and ultimately siphon money from the American people into the hands of those who are in charge of programs via taxes and inflation. Then in yet another corner we have the American people.

What are we really asking for in net neutrality?

We are asking to be left alone. We are afraid of having a free and open internet dismantled, censored, ruined. We're afraid that the likes of companies like Comcast in all its wisdom will make deals with other companies and giving traffic priority and an unfair competitive advantage over the smaller mom and pop shop, or even personal blogs. We're afraid that these companies could give us access to only pieces of the internet, charging us more for each additional chunk we would like access to.

In normal free markets this is no real concern because competition will eliminate most bad practices, however in the internet service game, we have a country divided up into groups where companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast enjoy regional monopolies. They have no REAL competition, and therefore not nearly as much of an incentive to give us what we really want instead of what would earn them the most money.

So our solution is to ask the government to step in to protect us.... but hold on just one second.

We are starting to realize that if the government steps in to rescue the people from the big bad companies, we will be following a trend that we have seen become all too real in recent months. I'm not going to argue the point, but I think most Americans agree that we should have reservations about government involvement in anything that we wish to remain free (as in freedom, not cost), open (as in everyone has equal access), and unrestricted (as in our first amendment right to freedom of speech). The government has imposed warrentless wiretapping on American citizens, demanded our personal information from Google and countless other companies (citing reasons other than court ordered subpoenas), and has even used any information it could get from the internet to go after citizens for additional taxes.

Barack has come out in support of Net Neutrality.

The things Obama mentions in this video are fantastic, and a sentiment that I think most people would generally agree with wholeheartedly. The problem is, what sort of slippery slope are we opening ourselves up to by allowing the government to regulate the internet in new ways? What sort of new regulations will they add on year after year? How can we be sure future regulations will always be in the true interest of the people and not of the spend happy politicians who need new sources of tax revenue? What happens when there is an incentive for government to ask for more, and then more again?

The question becomes "who do you trust more?" A company who has a regional monopoly and not grounded by the same capitalist forces that keep other companies in check (competition), OR the government, who has shown us that they do not care about your privacy, or about how they spend our money?

So what is the solution? If we can't trust big companies to look after us, and we cant trust big government, where do we turn?

I don't know the clear answer, but I believe it lies in the principles of our republic. When our founders constructed the constitution, they decided that a government could grow to become oppressive and unfair, and it needed the will of the people to provide the authority and keep it in check. It also realized that the people could band together and create a majority that could overpower the smaller less popular ideas unfairly, trampling the god given rights of the minority. This is why they designed the first ten amendments to the constitution. It was a document that took precedence over the will of the majority AND the will of the government. We need a bill of rights (of sorts) for the internet to protect us against both the government, the will of the majority, and the service providers. We also need a way to introduce true competition into the internet service provider market to stimulate competition and in turn produce a better end result for all internet users.

I imagine it would look something like this (extremely rough, and I'm sure some of this is entirely unfeasible, but it should get you thinking...).
Note: The following text is meant to serve individual persons using the internet. Corporations are not considered persons in the scope of the following text.

1. Extend the 1st amendment to specifically cover the internet as well. Each individual has an equal right to express and publish opinion in whatever manner they wish on the internet so long as it does not violate the inalienable rights of another.

2. A user has the right to use his service however he wishes, and should not be subject to any probe or investigation without a court order. This includes identifying the type of traffic that is being transmitted for any reason other than to gather information relevant to the sale of said service. Any data collected in this way must be private and not disclosed in any way that could identify the user without a court order.

3. Extend the 4th Amendment, specifically defining infringement on internet privacy without probable cause and a search warrant as an unreasonable search. This will still allow authorities to obtain a warrant, but aside from that any identifying data, even if identifiable by associative means, that is collected about an individual by a service provider cannot be sold, traded, or disclosed without the clear consent of that user. Any such request by the service provider must give the user an opportunity to opt out, and such option shall always be chosen by default.

4. At no time should any user's access be restricted or limited intentionally. All content should be delivered to the user with an equal priority.

5. A user cannot be charged for access to the internet on any basis other than the cost to deliver that access. Cost to deliver access should not be manipulated in order to change this cost.