Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Net Neutrality

A few years ago, an idea was floated by the large ISP's that they should be allowed to prioritize the access to different web sites. The initial plan was focused on providing faster access to users for a fee. While that idea sounds logical, the devil is in the details.

High volume users, such as Google, have objected strenuously. It will certainly make their operation more expensive, but more importantly, small content providers who rely on Google will be affected by it. After all, the little guys get their start blogging on Blogger and similar sites. It will be those users who will be affected by increased costs to Google and other providers like them. So, little guys like me could be forced off the net.

Now, I know that losing me wouldn't be a great loss. I'm not controversial and I don't blog much. But losing me, means that you could lose someone more important. Why not, for example, make life more difficult for Daily Kos (who just happens to be blogging on this on May 19, as I am)? This is something that we need to be very worried about. The New York Times, in an editorial today, commented that the ISP's

have realized that they could make a lot of money by charging some Web sites a premium to have their content delivered faster than that of other sites. Web sites relegated to Internet “slow lanes” would have trouble competing.

This sort of discrimination would interfere with innovation. Many major Web sites, like eBay or YouTube, might never have gotten past the start-up stage if their creators had been forced to pay to get their content through. Content discrimination would also allow I.S.P.’s to censor speech they do not like — something that has already begun. Last year, Verizon Wireless refused to allow Naral Pro-Choice America to send text messages over its network, reversing itself only after bad publicity.

So, there is a risk that non-neutral access to the web could result in limiting access to sites that express ideas the corporations don't want. Do you think that will be left-wing or right-wing ideas?

I'm going to share an idea that I've held for a long time. It's a little crackpot, but no one I've mentioned it to has been able to punch holes in it. As I look back over the last century, it seems to me that liberal/progressive ideas flowered at two times: the 1930's and the 1960's. I believe it happened because both eras were marked by inexpensive and decentralized media, allowing the left to reach its audience.

In the 1930's, there was excess printing capacity as newspapers and publishers failed during the Great Depression. Radio was a new medium and small radio stations slowly started up. During this period, the Socialist Party flourished. Labor unions started to take off. Roosevelt's New Deal was inked. But then, during World War II, small newspapers and radio stations fell by the wayside. Both the draft and the defense industries needed bodies, and small radio stations and newspapers were a luxury that couldn't be afforded. After World War II, the remaining radio stations and newspapers started folding into ever larger corporate bodies. Since corporations are politically conservative, outlets for left-wing messages were closed down. Not surprisingly then, the 1950's was a politically conservative era.

In the 1960's, new legislation and regulations readjusted the radio spectrum and required that AM radio receivers also receive FM. This allowed FM radio to come into its own. Small family-owned FM radio stations started gaining listeners. The stations found new content in the music and the left-wing politics of the times. As a result, people heard messages that they would otherwise have missed. Left-wing politics bloomed. But in the 1970's, corporations began buying the small stations, and with centralization, left-wing politics again fell by the wayside.

If I'm right, Ronald Reagan was the Teflon President, not because he was the Great Communicator, it was because he was the Only Communicator. George II similarly got a free ride until the internet really matured. He could hide the coffins coming back from Iraq from television. But now he can't stop pictures of the war from being posted on YouTube and things are looking bad for the Republican party.

The Republicans understand this dynamic. Previously, they make no effort to hide their view that Public Broadcasting is a left-wing voice. They've worked hard to harass public television and have tried repeatedly to shut it down. They have also worked hard to relax the rules against corporate ownership of multiple stations in the same market. With the development of the internet, of blogging, of podcasts, of YouTube, and so forth, communications are again being decentralized. If we, who consider ourselves liberal or progressive, want to keep our lines of communication open, we need the internet.

"Net neutrality" refers to protecting the internet from prioritized access. The Times editorial indicates that several net neutrality laws have been proposed to Congress, but they have gone nowhere. Why am I not surprised? The Republicans don't want net neutrality and the Democrats are too stupid to realize how important it is to them.

Learn more about net neutrality at Wikipedia and at Common Cause. There are petitions to sign at SavetheInternet.com or MoveOn.org.