Community Informatics

Loosing My Voice

We in the United States are guaranteed a great many freedoms, one of those being freedom of speech.  It is no wonder that our country would be a lead agent in helping to create something that has been so effective in helping each of us have a voice as the Internet.  As of late, though, there have been a number of cases that have come to light that indicate some corporations would readily decrease the voice of some.  For instance:

  • In 2007 Verizon Wireless rejected Naral Pro-Choice America’s request to send text messages over it’s network (a decision later reversed because of the outcry)
  • In 2008 Comcast was cited for illegally blocking certain file-sharing sites on its high-speed network (this was overturned on appeal April 2010 when a court said that the FCC didn’t have authority to make such decisions).
  • Apple was criticized for not allowing the iPhone application Google Voice, an application that would allow users to make phone calls without using AT&T network.

It’s easy to see these as isolated cases and to trust that market forces and appropriate laws will assure that a proper balance between open and fair use and profitability are maintained.  It’s also easy to become quickly overwhelmed with the competing arguments on issues such as Net Neutrality.  Further, it’s easy to wonder why it even matters.

The direction of many of the proposals being put forward with regard to net neutrality are to create a two-tiered system on the Internet in which those information service providers that pay the telecommunications companies who provide the infrastructure that carries the Internet traffic would get to go on the fast lane while everyone else goes on the slow lane.  The promise is that the slow lane would still be plenty fast for everyone.  But already there is an ongoing push to make sure that plenty fast for the slow lanes is defined in ways that favor certain types of for-profit information and communications above free sources of information and communications.  Plans along these lines only codify and accelerate a move towards favoring information and communication from large businesses that have the money to pay other large businesses to receive favored status.

A wonderful example of why this might matter was provided by Parminder Jeet Singh in a recent Community Informatics mailing list posting.  If you search on “Avian flu” you still get the Wikipedia and WHO links as the first sites from which you can get information.  Drug companies and others also have their information online about Avian flu, but it is treated equally with independent sources for the information.  However under new rules Wikipedia and WHO would be put onto the slow lanes unless they found the cash to join the drug companies and big media outlets who have paid to be on the fast lanes.  Thus, big companies such as drug companies in this example would be able to buy favored status.  Information about “avian flu” found on the Internet would become just another place to push solutions that require a company’s for-profit remedy unless those searching were willing to shift to slower and “less favored” sources of information.  The Internet will become a limited, controlled resource like TV and radio at the front end, with a smaller “back channel” section for information that ultimately go ignored.

With the advent of audio and video on phones and video hosting, blogging tools, and social media sites on the Internet, it has become simple for anyone to gain an equal voice.  We celebrated the ability for Iranians to show us what was happening on the streets following a questionable election.  We bristle at governments that work quickly to shut off the voice of dissenters.  In the U.S. in light of our Bill of Rights we especially and rightly bristle when we hear of moves by our government to monitor or control our information flows without appropriate warrants, or when they work to loosen the rules to make it easier for them to secure such warrants.

But we don’t seem to be as easily riled when big businesses step forward and attempt to take controls that we’d never allow government to seize.  And yet, it amounts to the same thing.  The voice of a few, whether government agencies or large businesses, win out over the rest.  The most straight forward solution is to insist that congress reject any move to create any type of two-tiered system on the Internet such as “Net Neutrality 2.0”.  All legal traffic should have equal access to the infrastructure of the Internet.  Anything else is a slippery slope towards closing off the most wonderful opportunity to assure freedom of speech we have ever seen.  If we believe in this ideal, we should contact our governmental leaders today to tell them to insist on true net neutrality, not a watered-down two tier, so called 2.0 version.  To find out how to contact your elected officials, go to:


Winners, Losers From the New Net Neutrality“, The Wall Street Journal

FCC’s Plans for Net Neutrality Falter“, The LA Times

Net Neutrality“, The New York Times

Net Neutrality Advocates Blast Google, Verizon Plan“, PC World

Net Neutrality: Reading Between the Google-Verizon Lines“, PC World

Google-Verizon Legislative Framework Proposal

Google’s statement on Net Neutrality in 2006 for comparison

Chip Bruce’s Blog Posting on the topic, with additional references

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