Switzerland

There’s something very magical about the internet, as a concept. Something, in fact, that this site embodies. And that is that anyone can make a web site, and depending on where you are browsing from, you can read any one of these websites. You may wander freely across the internet, ranging in pursuit of misinformation, entertainment, commentary, porn, or whatever you might need.

The internet, in a way, is the last bastion of free speech and the freedom to exchange information. Just this morning I read an article discussing a recently released report on flaws in Diebold voting machines. I thought of highlighting this report for my American readers this morning, because I think it’s important for you to understand that if you are unfortunate enough to use a Diebold machine, your vote may not count. (Luckily for me Mendocino County is resisting the machines–there will be one installed in each polling place for accessibility reasons as required by law, but the rest of us will use scantron sheets. Still a far cry from the punch-card ballots we used successfully for years.) I also read an interesting DIY piece on how to trick out one’s dorm room, which gave me some interior decorating ideas. In fact, though I’ve only been online for half an hour or so this morning, I’ve visited over fifty websites to perform tasks ranging from the mundane (checking my sadly empty email box) to the crucial (paying my student loans).

All the sites I visited today loaded at varying speeds, depending on how fast their servers are, whether a cat was standing in the way of the wireless card, and a few other variables. All of them loaded reasonably fast because I am on a high speed connection, and I was glad for that.

Which brings me to the real issue today: network neutrality. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a few weeks, ever since I first read proposals by the phone companies to change the way we interact with the internet. I’m also more concerned about it now, because I see little regulatory attempt to stop these proposals from happening.

Most of my readers seem fairly internet savvy, and I’m sure you are aware of the recent controversy. Essentially, phone companies want to charge companies more to “prioritize” their packets. A fancy way of saying that a company like say Google could pay the premium to have Google-associated pages load faster. A premium that another company like, for example, A9 might not be willing to pay. For people who already prefer Google, the difference might be negligible. But for A9 users, it might not be so pleasant.

The proposal to create a toll road on the internet troubles me for a lot of reasons.

The first is that it seems antithetical to the nature of the internet. Many companies (Google, for one) got their start as small operations run out of a dorm room or garage before ballooning into multinational powerhouses. The open form of the internet made this possible. Perhaps the next Google, even now, is being founded somewhere in the world–if the phone company proposals go through, we might never know about it. The internet in its current stage is a very proletarian creation–this website will load just as quickly for you as the Daily Kos. (Actually, probably a little bit faster because it’s not as graphics heavy.) This is an important feature of the internet. I can be heard just as loudly as a senator or a Nobel laureate. There’s a great deal to be said for basic equality.

The second is that it eliminates the nature of competition. As the internet stands now, the better company should, in theory, win. Advertisement helps, of course, but so do usability, reputation, and word of mouth. I happen to like the tools Google provides me with, so I go with Google rather than other comparable companies. But in a world where Google had worked out a deal with SBC, I might be forced to choose Google over another product, even if I found the other product superior for my needs. Companies would no longer be competing on the basis of quality, because they wouldn’t have to. If one site loads four times as fast, especially for those on dialup, the choice is essentially made for you.

The third is that as it stands now, the internet requires innovation on the part of those designing sites. One wants to make the experience as pleasurable as possible for users, to keep them coming back. It’s a constant challenge to walk to the line of making something attractive and functional, something innovative and usable. There is a positive incentive to design a clean, navigable site–users appreciate it, and come back for more. A great deal of the challenge would be taken out of that if the webmaster knew ou site would always load faster than the competition. Why bother to consider the needs of users on dialup by loading images as thumbnails, when you know the site will load quickly anyway? Why bother to constantly devise new products when users need to use your site because it’s the only one that loads quickly enough on their slow connection?

The fourth is the implication inherent in this two-tiered system. If you aren’t in the prioritized cluster, you will fall hopelessly behind, something that not only doesn’t benefit you, but doesn’t benefit the system. With the virtual monopoly the phone companies hold, the internet would essentially be centrally controlled–something that should bother you, dear readers. News in America is largely centrally controlled–note the current state of the news industry. Central control is not good for the system it controls, because it discourages creativity and innovation. Do you want SBC directing your browsing habits? Of course not, so you might choose to switch to a provider that is committed to network neutrality. This wouldn’t be good for SBC, because while they would be making money from companies desperate to be in the top tier, they would be losing customers who might otherwise have stayed with SBC.

It is my firm opinion that networks should remain neutral and serve the public good because neutral networks build strong economies. They create more educated citizens. They give a greater sense of choice to the user. They give incentive for companies and organizations to constantly improve and compete with each other for the best product, rather than the best connections.

A number of organizations committed to promoting network neutrality exist, and this is a goodness. You as an individual citizen can also cast your vote on this issue–contact your representative and express your desire that ou fight to maintain network neutrality. Encourage your acquaintances to do likewise. This is an issue that matters, and it is important to let the House of Representative know that we, the people, are opposed to any compromise of network neutrality. You might do well to let your representative know that in the coming years, campaigns will be made and broken on the internet–so which side would ou like to be on?

[network neutrality]