Wednesday, May 10, 2006

You Make The Call

There's a new buzzword out on the blogs lately, at least new to me anyway. It's "net neutrality" - an overriding idea that has helped guide the explosive growth of the internet since its infancy. Net neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must serve only as a conduit to the data users want (i.e., websites) and not as a gatekeeper that decides what sites users can and can't view.

In other words, if an ISP has a reason to block or slow access to certain sites -- say they dislike the webmaster's politics, or want folks to use the ISP's search engine instead of choosing their own -- it's the principle of net neutrality that makes ISPs provide equal access to all content. Given that the majority of internet users in the US connect via a short list of the most popular telecoms, a few of the bigger ISPs blocking content that doesn't suit them could immediately impact millions of users' access to the sites and services of their choosing.

Currently debates in Congress (and specifically in the Commerce Committee) are ongoing regarding overhauling the Telecommunications Act. The Senate is expected to take up the issue later this year. I feel reasonably confident that deep-pocketed lobbyists are making sure the voices of the special-interest groups whom they represent are being heard in Congress.

There's a short video currently on YouTube that explains the issue (from one perspective, of course). I'll link to it below, and here's a permalink as well.

This website has more details, including an informative FAQ file and a map showing what stand (if any) your particular representative has taken. I encourage all internet users to read it and form their own opinions, then take action if they are so inclined. Just don't wait too long, or your emails to your Congressperson on the subject may not be allowed to reach their intended destination.

ADDENDUM: When I wrote the above (a couple of weeks ago, when I first became aware of the issue), I had some suspicion that there might be more to the story than I first realized. Perhaps it was a strong personal aversion to publicly demonstrating my ignorance that kept me from posting my initial thoughts. Additional reading has suggested, or maybe just reinforced, a few ideas to me:

1) As is often the case, there are persuasive arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. (I'll post links below, including some from individuals who played critical roles in the development of the internet as we know it.)
2) Despite the fact that I currently make my living with a mouse and keyboard, there's no end to how much I don't know about computers in general and the internet specifically.
3) Compared to how often I've regretted something I said, I've rarely regretted something I didn't say. I'm glad I held off on posting this until I did some further evaluation.

That said, I'm still not comfortable staking out a position on this one. Readers are encouraged to check out all the linked material as well as do their own research (careful not to trip over the TCP/IPs, W3Cs, ACKs or other pointy acronyms) and then come back to share their views with everyone at the Chateau.

Related Links:

John Carroll (Microsoft employee and ZDNet commentator) thinks Net Neutrality will stifle competition and innovation.

Sonia Arrison of TechNewsWorld feels similarly in her post.

This post on an industry site discusses a number of features of Senator Stevens’ bill before getting to net neutrality. It also takes an anti-regulatory stance, and provides links to a variety of other industry sources.

This post from the Decentralized Information Group (based at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory [CSAIL]) is authored by "timbl" - who turns out to be Sir Tim Berners-Lee. If you don't know who he is, I'm not going to tell you (in case you're among those who believe Al Gore invented the Internet) - so go look him up.

This is a prepared statement (PDF format) from Vint Cerf given to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Hearing on “Network Neutrality”. Like Berners-Lee, Cerf brings plenty of internet geek cred to the discussion. He currently is employed by Google.