Surfing without a net

In 2008, the internet is fair and open to all. Soon, you may have to pay more for simple services like web searches. Do we have your attention now?

This video of Los Angeles rapper and North African immigrant Derrick Ashong at a Barack Obama rally attracted millions of YouTube viewers, making him a symbol of the democratizing power of the internet.

This video of Los Angeles rapper and North African immigrant Derrick Ashong at a Barack Obama rally attracted millions of YouTube viewers, making him a symbol of the democratizing power of the internet.

You know the routine. Monday morning, 6:30 a.m: You wake up, shower, down coffee and go online to check email and CNN for gossip and news of the world. You forward a proposal you drafted over the weekend to your work email. After skipping around to a few other sites—like YouTube, Facebook or Digg—you dress, breakfast and join the Interstate 80 commute.

When you get to the job, the first thing you do, naturally, is go online. No big deal—just an average, wired morning in the first decade of a century where much of our work and personal lives revolve around being digitally connected to each other and everything almost all the time.

If you’re under 25, you barely remember a time when all this hyperconnectedness didn’t exist. But really … it didn’t. It was less than 15 years ago when the baby boomers among us were buying our first personal computers and starting to send each other glacially slow emails that seemed to move at light speed. Since then, the tech has gotten always faster, cheaper. We are communicating—sending, searching, interacting and creating content—as never before. In the upcoming years, we’re told, this capacity to connect will speed up exponentially as our internet, TV and telephone use moves to a converged platform operating off a super high-speed connection.

Or not.

You don’t have to be a paranoid techie or consumer-rights policy wonk to see that the era of an open, egalitarian and transparent internet could soon come to a screeching halt in America. The nation’s largest cable and telephone companies—the ones that control the wires, towers and switching systems that make up residential broadband in America—seem to be moving with new aggressiveness to figure out ways to establish themselves as gatekeepers on the internet.

Many fear that recent moves by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon signal a quickening desire to control who gets what internet content—and how fast. Last October, Comcast was caught purposefully blocking traffic for users of the file-sharing, peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent. In September, Verizon Wireless was found to have blocked a pro-choice organization from sending text messages to members. Earlier in the year, AT&T censored comments by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder that were critical of President George W. Bush. Along with all this comes the recent purchase of the last big chunks of available wireless spectrum by AT&T and Verizon.

Adding to the fear of content control and “traffic cops” on the internet is the specter that cable and telephone company execs may intend to impose “tiers” of access, with nonprofits, community-access sites and independent bloggers relegated to a slow lane. Advocacy groups like Free Press believe we have entered a “policy moment” for the internet where the market will soon be shaped for this medium as it was for cable in the 1980s, television in the 1950s and radio in the 1930s.

Lined up against the telecommunication firms are public-interest groups and think-tanks aplenty, e.g., Free Press, Common Cause, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Importantly, the nonprofits have been joined by some powerful internet-based companies, like Google, Yahoo, Craigslist, Amazon, eBay. All are pushing for something called “net neutrality,” the concept that the internet should remain a free and open platform, and that limited government rules may be required to ensure this. All support House Resolution 5353, the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act,” which Democrat Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced in Congress a few months ago. It would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to “preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of broadband networks that enable consumers to reach, and service providers to offer, lawful content, applications and services of their choosing.”

Reno is hardly at the forefront of this national debate. But local cyber scholars, public-media access advocates and techies of all varieties are keeping their eyeballs peeled for developments.

“I think it was AT&T who brought it up initially,” said Josh Kenzer, director of business development at one of Reno’s leading tech companies, 12 Horses. He emphasizes that these are his personal opinions, not necessarily those of his company. “They’re seeing somewhat of a bandwidth crunch. They need to expand their services, their pipes, to provide more and faster internet access, and they’re looking for a way to recoup those costs. At least that’s the argument they’ve presented. By charging for more of a tiered internet, they can have those additional revenues to increase speeds and connectivity and so on.

“Of course, any business out there is trying to make a profit. There’s definitely an element of profit there, for sure. There was a lot of conversation that government already gave subsidies to these companies to expand their pipes and fiber to the curb. And now they’re saying they need more money from consumers to do the exact same thing they’ve already received government subsidies for, which doesn’t sit right with me.”

But it doesn’t all boil down to bad guys vs. good guys in this debate, i.e. traditional communication companies vs. the new, wired ones. Some, like the folks from Google, believe net neutrality is crucial but hope the debate doesn’t fall into old-style politics and black vs. white thinking.

“It’s not loser-winner with this issue,” insists Google media counsel and net neutrality guru Rick Whitt. “Net neutrality is not something that constrains anybody. The [telecoms] can do fine in this new environment. … The internet is a unique platform. The idea that it’s a single piece of pie that we have to fight over no longer holds.”

Steal big, steal little
A formal Federal Communications Commission hearing on allegations that the country’s second largest broadband provider was secretly blocking internet traffic was ready to commence in Austin Hall at Harvard Law School last month—so what the heck was going on with all the sleeping people? As it turned out, Comcast had bused in dozens of people to “hold” front row seats for that company’s employees at the recent, standing-room-only hearing. More than 100 people who wanted to attend were turned away. So when video footage of the dormant seat holders got 60,000 views on YouTube, Comcast was accused of blocking public access to a hearing about complaints that they were, ahem, blocking public access to the internet.

The FCC investigative hearing was called because users of BitTorrent (a popular peer-to-peer protocol that uses the power of large networks of PCs to “swarm downloads” or share large data files) discovered that Comcast was secretly interfering with their traffic. BitTorrent users—who employ the application to transmit TV shows, movies and, yes, pornography—were first told by Comcast that there was no blocking going on. But cybersleuths soon figured out that Comcast had not only blocked traffic, it had also masked its interference by making it appear as if BitTorrent streams were being interrupted at the source instead of by Comcast itself.

Eventually Comcast admitted it had, in fact, interfered with BitTorrent traffic. But the company claimed it was only doing what was necessary to deal with traffic-flow problems which occurred because “bandwidth hogs” often dominated traffic on its network. File-sharing systems do use large amounts of bandwidth, and networks like Comcast’s are simply not designed for it. Still, choosing particular applications to block or not block—as Comcast did—can be regarded as discriminatory and/or anti-competitive.

Naturally, the blogosphere erupted over the affair, and the public-interest group Free Press and think tank Public Knowledge filed a formal complaint with the FCC, demanding an investigation. A BitTorrent user in San Francisco, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against Comcast for its action to block BitTorrent.

So it was no surprise when, in early April, Comcast, under increasing pressure from the blogosphere and the FCC, decided to come to an “agreement” with BitTorrent. The cable company said it would switch to a “protocol agnostic” network-management policy before the close of 2008 if company representatives would agree no further government intervention was necessary. BitTorrent agreed.

But not so fast.

Net-neutrality proponents were a long way from being satisfied. They weren’t about to give up the chance to use the incident as a prime example of the danger that loomed if cable and telephone companies were able to act as traffic cops and/or block access to sites of their choosing. “This doesn’t change the urgent need for the FCC to take action,” read an email sent out by Marvin Ammori, a lawyer for Free Press. “With Comcast’s history of broken promises and record of deception—we can’t just take their word that the internet is now in safe hands.”

Comcast bused in people to “hold” front row seats for that company’s employees at a recent, standing-room-only hearing on net neutrality. Ironically, those sleepers blocked public participation. Or maybe it’s not ironic.

Who owns it?
The debate about the future of the internet is hardly a new one. But it will likely reach a pinnacle in the next few years. What exists now online is a digital commons, explained Christina Gagnier, a net-neutrality expert who organized a recent symposium on the subject at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “Openness, transparency, user choice and control” is what the internet offers today, she said. But it could all change fast. “In 2006, people said [big cable and telephone companies] might someday interfere. It was speculative.”

But it’s happening now.

Though the current debate seems to center on issues of content—who controls it and how to manage it—Gagnier predicts the real battle lies ahead, when the focus moves to the matter of “tiers” of access.

“The [internet service providers] would like to have tiered services where they get more payback for providing a service,” she said. “Now, it’s $19.95 to get internet, but it could become like cable—you pay for basic access, and you pay more for premium.” In this scenario, she explained, providers could discriminate by controlling what data to prioritize, such as files from media companies they themselves own.

AT&T has acknowledged it is considering taking this route. And recently, Time Warner Cable, with 7.5 million internet customers (about half of Comcast’s 13 million) announced they will test a tiered billing method in Texas based on individual customers’ bandwidth usage.

There’s wide agreement that blocking, impairing or degrading internet traffic is not acceptable, Gagnier said. But after that, and on the matter of tiers, “there’s a wide swath of different opinions about what’s OK and not.”

Google’s Whitt, for example, said network operators may actually benefit users by “differentiating between categories of traffic” to deal with congestion issues. His only concern is that it not be done on a discriminatory basis. On the BitTorrent debate, Whitt said: “We want to give Comcast the benefit of the doubt that it was dealing with congestion.”

At the same time that neutrality supporters duke out their “wide swath of different opinions” in the blogosphere, the anti-neutrality side has, since 2006, been vying for favor in the court of public opinion. Service providers like AT&T (a company which emerged, along with Verizon, after the restructuring of the old Bell telephone companies) helped fund a nonprofit called Hands Off the Internet (www.handsoff.org) to get their anti-net neutrality message out there. The site and others claim that government regulation of the internet could indirectly prevent innovation and improvement. A public-relations video (www.dontregulate.org) contains a stylish, hip cartoon video message designed to appeal to young people. It claims, basically, that internet companies want to fix what’s not broken.

Less than hip, however, was a message from the AT&T brass on the subject a few years back. Fed up with controlling the so-called “last mile” of connection into people’s homes and workplaces without enough profit to show for it, AT&T chairman Ed Whitacre sounded off: “[Internet companies] don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires. … They use my lines for free—and that’s bull. … For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!”

Videos go viral
When Derrick Ashong, a 32-year-old rap musician from Los Angeles, joined a throng of Barack Obama supporters outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood at the Democratic primary debate at the end of January, he had no idea he would soon become a one-man symbol of the democratizing power of the internet. But when a skeptical stranger named “Mike” turned a camera on him at the event, the resulting video proved once more that it no longer takes vast sums of money to reach an audience with a message. In the video, the North African immigrant describes his love of America, his passionate desire to see a universal health-care plan, his intellectual support for Obama. The six-minute video inexplicably went viral on YouTube and wound up attracting a million views.

The video goes straight to the heart of the debate over net neutrality. If network providers controlled traffic flow or content, room for independent, random views such as those put forth in the Ashong video would be snuffed out, say the groups. Neutrality supporters hasten to add: If the internet weren’t open to all, would Virginia voters have ever seen the “macaca” video-gone-viral that put GOP Sen. George Allen out of a job? Would public opinion have built against U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his politically motivated firing of federal prosecutors?

But neutrality is not just about health-care policies and out-of-work lawyers. Most people don’t care about the politics of it all. They care about hearing the music they want to hear without it being filtered.

What’s to prevent the telecoms from colluding with the record industry or Hollywood to promote or undermine certain content?

“That’s the whole basis of net neutrality, especially when you get Verizon or Sprint and some of these other ISPs, in New York Cablevision, they have content themselves, not just the pipes,” said Reno programmer Kenzer. “They could easily make that content more accessible, streamed faster, of higher quality, and the competing content, they could degrade those services. That’s one of the biggest arguments against a tiered internet. Are they going to be ethical enough not to do that? Or was that their plan from the very beginning?”

To say there are big piles of money lobbying on both sides of Markey’s HR 5353 is an understatement. Google and other internet companies have substantial resources, obviously, and Free Press, backed by billionaire George Soros among others, has $5 million in funding. Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, the lobbying budget for the so-called telecoms last year was $17 million for AT&T, $14 million for Verizon and $9 million for Comcast.

Though most agree that the Markey bill doesn’t have much of a chance of getting through Congress this session, neutrality proponents are glad it was at least introduced.

“It’s great that it’s out there,” said Whitt. “Its prospects are not good, but it helps move the ball down the road.”

The internet’s DNA
On the matter of net neutrality, Google tends to speak in the first-person plural, with its execs acknowledging that the company owes everything it has become to the free, open and innovative marketplace of the internet. “Openness is everything to us,” said Whitt. “The internet is unique, a ubiquitous thing.”

Regarding whether Google will stay on the side of net neutrality if it stops suiting the company’s business model, Whitt said, “An open internet is central to the corporate DNA of this company. It’s fundamental.”

Google’s go-to lawyer in D.C. on all things related to net neutrality, Whitt described the two sides in the debate as, “networks vs. the stuff on networks.” He then posed the complex net-neutrality issue in a 10-word query: “What is the network’s role in regards to the stuff?” According to Whitt, the events of the past year have actually helped the cause of neutrality move forward. “I think right now there’s a good feeling that the cause for an open internet has gained ground,” he said.

In partial explanation for his optimism, he offered up consideration of “complexity economics,” a theory that suggests that the economy is not a closed system with finite resources, and that economic growth does not emerge from capital or property anymore, but from ideas. The technology of the internet creates an unprecedented platform for innovation, according to Whitt, and his job and Google’s are to ensure net neutrality so as “to make sure [the internet] can grow organically.

“The net-neutrality issue is not about Google,” he added. “It’s about the next Google.”

The long history of telecommunications companies wresting media control away from the public must be heeded, and many skirmishes are still ahead. A new president, Cabinet and Congress in Washington will, no doubt, weigh in with significance as the debate moves to the forefront. And make no mistake: The geek economists, citizen groups, free-speech activists, internet companies and, yes, the network operators, will all have to wrestle with these issues while simultaneously witnessing an ongoing explosion of innovation on the internet.