In a recent editorial (May 24 issue), The New Republic argued that the Obama Administration was doing a decent job on Internet policy and obliquely referenced an article discussing carrier opposition to community broadband. The op-ed begins,
Politicians aren’t always especially thoughtful about, or even familiar with, information technology. George W. Bush used the term “Internets” during not one but two presidential debates. The late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens famously referred to the World Wide Web as a “series of tubes.” And John McCain drew ridicule in 2008 when he conceded that he was still “learning to get online myself.”
Much worse than these gaffes, however, are some of the policies that have been promoted by lawmakers and candidates who seem to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of a free and open Internet. In recent years, we have seen politicians accede to the interests of giant telecom companies rather than support net neutrality; propose anti-piracy bills that threaten Internet freedom; and, as Siddhartha Mahanta recently documented at TNR Online, block poor communities from receiving broadband access.
Good to see this issue being discussed outside of the standard tech circles. Especially when outlets like the New Republic explicitly call for more wireless subscriber protections:
There are, of course, ways in which the administration has disappointed. Even when the White House has done the right thing on Internet issues, it has not always acted as speedily or as forcefully as it might have. Moreover, it has not always done the right thing. Particularly striking was the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision, in late 2010, to exempt mobile carriers from new rules protecting net neutrality. The FCC’s step blocks Internet service providers from slowing down or preventing access to the content of their competitors—but it only applies to wired, not wireless, providers.
While many of us are hopeful that the government will take a stronger hand in preventing carriers from disrupting the open Internet, Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the Internet) rightly warns us that overall governance of the Internet itself should remain free from national government control.
At present, the I.T.U. focuses on telecommunication networks and on radio frequency allocations rather than the Internet per se. Some members are aiming to expand the agency’s treaty scope to include Internet regulation. Each of the 193 members gets a vote, no matter its record on fundamental rights — and a simple majority suffices to effect change. Negotiations are held largely among governments, with very limited access for civil society or other observers.
There is no need to change the way the Internet is presently governed. As Vint notes,
The Net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance.
Public interest groups, like ILSR, have been advocating regulations like network neutrality that would preserve the way the Internet has long functioned. It is the big carriers like Comcast and AT&T that want to change how we access the Internet in order that they can make more money serving as gatekeepers to the net.
Moving Internet governance to the ITU is a different policy discussion that also threatens to change how the Internet is accessed, often to the benefit of governments that want to preserve their power. They want to be the gatekeepers, often in order to consolidate their own power and break up pro-democracy movements.
The key to preserving Internet freedom is removing gatekeepers (and I would include both Apple and Facebook in this list, with Google as a possible addition depending on the circumstance).
If you want to learn more about these issues, the best place to start is with videos from the recent Freedom to Connect conference. And plan to join us next year.
Below is a video from Vint Cerf's opening keynote. We'll feature more presentations from Freedom to Connect in future posts.