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10 Jul, 2014 11:37

​Dumping net neutrality: ‘Fast’ lane to censorship & Obama’s biggest letdown

​Dumping net neutrality: ‘Fast’ lane to censorship & Obama’s biggest letdown

A heavy blow to the heart of American innovation and an end to the quarter century of online liberty in the self-styled ‘land of the free’ - that’s what it would mean if US regulators go on with their proposal to reverse net neutrality.

A hackneyed mistaken belief, accepted as gospel by many, is that Germany invented the modern motorway system, or autobahn as they call it. As a matter of fact, the world's first enclosed-highway was in Italy, running between Milan and Varese and forms part of the Italian road network to this day.

What is true, however, is that Germany was the first nation to build a dense, cross-country system of motorways in the 1930's – for primarily military purposes – and that their efficient system was copied by copious other countries in the post-war period.

Another widely expressed myth is that the World Wide Web was invented by Americans. It's accurate to claim that the first internet-type experiments took place in the USA in the 1960s, but the internet and the web are not synonymous. When people say they are 'looking something up on the internet' they are actually using the web, which was not fashioned by Americans, but by Europeans - at the CERN institute in Geneva around 1989. The man who deserves most credit for its creation is England's Tim Berners-Lee, but Belgian Robert Cailliau played a large part which is often overlooked.

The reason why most people associate Germany with motorways is because Germany and cars go together like coffee and cream and that, as I mentioned, they were the first to develop a proper interconnected labyrinth of routes. As for the web being perceived as an American innovation, it's probably due to the fact that the vast majority of the major players in the corporate world it spawned are US in origin. Indeed, eight of the world’s top 15 technology companies by revenue are American and none are European. The other seven are all Asian.

When it comes to web companies, US dominance is even more pronounced, with seven of the top 10 (again by revenue) originating there - Amazon, Google, eBay, Facebook, Priceline, Yahoo and Salesforce. Conjointly, there is no European presence in the list and the remainder are two Chinese corporations and a Japanese entity.

While the World Cup continues, let's equate it to soccer. England invented the sport, but has a solitary Jules Rimet trophy to its name (and even that was by the grace of an Azeri linesman). Meanwhile, Brazil have won five tournaments, Italy four and Germany will either add their fourth or Argentina their third on Sunday. When it comes to the web, Europe built the stadium, but has allowed the US and Asia to play the game on their pitch and in their market (the World's biggest single trading zone) while, at best, enjoying some regulatory power. When it comes to cars, Italy also plays a back-seat role with Germany, Japan and the US dominating the arena.

Now imagine if, when Germany had finished its super-duper autobahn system, it decided different cars could drive at different velocities? Suppose, domestic marques like Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen could operate at will, but foreign competitors such as Ford, Toyota and Land Rover would have speed restrictions? That would sound totally ludicrous, wouldn't it? Poor Fritz in his Ferrari could only plod along at 100 km/h, but lucky Helmut in his Porsche could freely race past at 200 km/h in his guaranteed German racer.

Wouldn't that be totally bananas? Of course it would be, and I could stand corrected here, but I don't think even the craziest German politician - and there's been a few – has ever mooted it.

Well, guess what? America is about to do it, not on the roads, but on the information superhighway or the World Wide Web that Berners Lee and his Belgian colleague gave to the world.

It concerns a thing called Net Neutrality and this is a big issue, essential to the freedom of the web, which is currently in massive danger stateside.

Facebook would not be here

The term itself was conjured by Tim Wu, a Columbia University media professor, back in 2003 and it essentially means that internet service providers (ISP's) and governments ought to "treat all data on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication." In plain terms it means the internet should be free, open and balanced to all. Currently, this is the case in most countries, except in extreme cases such as child pornography and where organized criminality may be involved.

Reuters / Eric Thayer

The concept also means that if anybody would like to attempt a start-up to rival Facebook, they can enjoy the same unimpeded connection speeds as Mark Zuckerberg's brainchild, and while their chances of surpassing the California-located giant are slim, at least they do have a chance, however minuscule it may be.

Indeed, had net neutrality not existed a decade ago, it's unlikely Facebook would ever have taken off because its predecessor as the world's pre-eminent social network, MySpace, could have used its financial muscle to speed ahead like Helmut in his Porsche and left Zuckerberg's start-up floundering in the slow lane. It could have done this by negotiating deals with ISP's to give it favorable bandwidth and cut Facebook's (or any other social networks) supply. But it didn't, because it couldn't. The reason was net neutrality.

If net neutrality was to be dropped now it would most probably inhibit internet investment, significantly increase consumer broadband prices and enable the established IT giants to more-or-less lock the gates to new competitors by choking their access.

The body which controls this is the Washington-based Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates domestic and international 'wire' communications – TV, radio, web and various others.

In spring, it emerged that the FCC was considering altering their rules to allow ISP's to offer content providers a faster track to deliver content, which would reverse net neutrality and create 'fast' and 'slow' lanes as I described in my autobahn comparison.

It would do this via the reclassification of broadband services, in whole or in part, from an ‘information service’ to a ‘telecommunications service’. That reclassification will give the FCC the authority to treat ISP's as public utilities, thereby opening up the door for regulating network deployment, broadband services and regulatory price discrimination.

Alexis Ohanian, the creator of the news site and social networking service Reddit has been one of the few established 'Web celebrities' to kick up a stink about the FCC's alleged intentions. The danger here, as Ohanian explains, is that small companies - the Googles and eBays of the future - won’t have the capital to “win on the merits” of their technology or innovation, and that the entrenched tech powers won’t be challenged, or, as he puts it, “disrupted.”

In other words, the level playing field of the web's first quarter century will be pillaged and the current big guns will be able to use their cash and influence to block upstarts. This is extremely unfair and, in a globalized world, rather dangerous.

RIA Novosti / Mikhail Fomichev

Who would play the game?

Savetheinternet.com, a lobby group which exists to defend net neutrality and is strongly opposing the FCC's moves, claims that American web users are in serious danger of having their freedoms swept away: "expect internet blackouts that extend far beyond the popular content vendors as smaller websites are caught in the crossfire. Tweets, emails and texts will be mysteriously delayed or dropped.”

"Videos will load slowly, if at all. Websites will work fine one minute, and time out another. Your ISP will claim it’s not their fault, and you’ll have no idea who is to blame. You also won’t be able to vote with your feet and wallet, as there’s no competition in broadband, and all ISPs will be playing this game," the group states on its website.

Furthermore, the activists outline that "ISPs hate the idea that they’re nothing more than providers of ‘dumb pipes’, or connections that simply carry our traffic. Now that they’re free from any legal restraints, the ISPs will try to get internet companies to pay tolls and threaten to block or delay them if they don’t. Exclusive deals could become the norm, with AT&T exclusively bringing you Netflix or Time Warner Cable as the sole source for YouTube."

Put plainly, the web will become akin to cable TV and a few oligarchs will control access to it, modern-day Ted Turners and Rupert Murdochs disguised as peaceniks in sneakers and baseball caps.

It would also allow the US government, through pliant businesspeople, to effectively censor news sites and blogs that it doesn't like by reducing their connection speeds to such low levels as to make their output unwatchable or unreadable. Additionally, it would empower Washington authorities to use their supplicants to block alternative views in times of war or political disputes.

Let's use the example of the Iraq war when the subsequently-discredited US intelligence, which formed the pretext for invasion, was already being questioned by many media sources before the first shots were fired. In the UK, the Daily Mirror, under the stewardship of latter-day TV personality Piers Morgan, was assiduously disputing the veracity of the White House claims about Saddam Hussein's supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

Without net neutrality, a future George Bush could potentially, with a nod and a wink, 'ask' ISP-owning loyalists to stymie a prospective Daily Mirror so that the US public can't access dissenting views. This is the kind of behavior that the US has historically liked to moralize about internationally – now the FCC could be creating the conditions for it to be implemented at home.

Silence from White House

In 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama pledged to "support the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the internet." In 2014, President Obama is silent on the matter and Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for both cable and mobile telecoms (cellphone) carriers is president of the FCC.

“That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo," exclaimed John Oliver, the British host of HBO's Last Week Tonight in a recent broadcast. When this was put to Wheeler, his trite response was, "I would like to state for the record that I am not a dingo." Oliver jokingly replied that he had only really said that hiring a former cable industry lobbyist to run the FCC was merely like hiring a dingo to babysit your kids. He'd never actually said he was a dingo - but, of course, now that Wheeler is denying it, Oliver is asking for proof that Wheeler is, in fact, not a dingo.

U.S. President Barack Obama announces venture capitalist Tom Wheeler (R) to head the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington (Reuters / Jason Reed)

Despite the comedy, Wheeler is not backing off his plan to hand the keys to the internet over to the cable and phone industries. He claims that the only alternative to allowing paid fast lanes and slow lanes is some rule against “unreasonable discrimination," yet suggests that the “unreasonable discrimination” rule would be flimsy and could lead to abuse.

What the FCC chairman needs to understand is that his proposal is a mistake of historic proportions. The plan would drive a stake in the heart of American innovation because startups can’t afford to pay ISP's for fast lanes to compete with existing web giants.

It would probably also shift the epicenter of the IT revolution back to where it began in Europe where the new wave would be unencumbered by state-backed favoritism. However, Americans would be stuck in the dark, further separating the country from world opinion and isolating it, which may suit its leaders, but would be disastrous for global stability and progress.

Obama said in 2008 in crystal-clear terms, “I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality – because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose.”

There are just days left until the July 15 FCC deadline for the initial round of comments, and I know that we have become accustomed to Obama, in my opinion the weakest and most disappointing US president of the modern age (at least Jimmy Carter had some redeeming features), speaking out of both sides of his mouth on countless topics, but he's really running the full gamut of deeply-held principles from A to B on the issue of net neutrality.

The president made no public statement when three individuals he appointed to the FCC (all members of his own Democratic party, naturally) voted to move forward with a plan to allow broadband carriers to provide an exclusive ‘fast lane’ to commercial companies that pay extra fees to get their content transmitted online. Instead, White House aides released a press release distancing the president from the decision.

Obama has broken numerous promises as president, from not closing Guantanamo Bay to not preventing drugs companies from blocking generic drugs. But this is one assurance he needs to keep, or a quarter century of online liberty in the self-styled ‘land of the free’ will crash and burn.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.