We can Prevent Internet Service Providers from Censoring the Internet

Date: 27 May 2009 | posted in: information, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Cory Doctorow, a strong proponent of network neutrality explains not just why we must preserve the Internet as it is, but also why we have the authority to do it.  Some Internet Service Providers want to choose what sites their subscribers can visit – and at what speeds.  

Take filtering: by allowing ISPs to silently block access to sites that displease them, we invite all the ills that accompany censorship – Telus, a Canadian telcom that blocked access to a site established by its striking workers where they were airing their grievances. Around the world, ISPs co-operate with censorious governments in their mission to keep their citizens in the dark: for example, ISPs in the United Arab Emirates are blocking access to stories about a UAE royal family member who was video-recorded torturing a merchant with whom he had a business dispute. As a matter of policy, Transport for London isn’t allowed to block us from riding the tube to a rally in support of striking transit workers; British Gas doesn’t turn our heat off if they suspect we’re housing a benefits cheat; and BT doesn’t divert our phone calls if we’re ringing up a competitor to change carriers. Giving an ISP censorship powers — and then layering censorship in secrecy and arbitrariness — we make the internet a less trustworthy and less useful place to be.

ISPs would also like to be able to arbitrarily slow or degrade our network connections depending on what we’re doing and with whom. In the classic "traffic shaping" scenario, a company like Virgin Media strikes a deal with Yahoo to serve its videos on a preferential basis, and then slows its customers’ connections to Google, Hulu, and other videohosting sites to ensure that Virgin’s videos are the quickest to load. As the Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, said, this is like the phone company putting you on hold when your ring your local pizzeria, with a message inviting you to press one to be immediately connected to Domino’s, its "preferred pizza partner".

We have long argued that the best solution to this problem is for the community to build its own networks.  This will ensure the network is responsive to the community – City Hall is more accessible to citizens than Comcast’s call centers.  

However, we have other potential avenues to regulate because these companies require public subsidies to operate:

Telcoms companies argue that their responsibility is to their shareholders, not the public interest, and that they are only taking the course of maximum profitability. It’s not their business to ensure that the Googles of tomorrow attain liftoff from the garages in which they are born.

But telcoms firms are all recipients of invaluable public subsidy in the form of rights of way and other grants that allow them to string their wires over and under our streets and through our homes. You and I can’t go spelunking in the sewers with a spool of cable to wire up our own alternative network. And if the phone companies had to negotiate for every pole, every sewer, every punch-down, every junction box, every road they get to tear up, they’d go broke. All the money in the world couldn’t pay for the access they get for free every day.

If they don’t like it, they don’t have to do it. But we don’t have to give them our sewers and streets and walls, either. Governments and regulators are in a position to demand that these recipients of public subsidy adhere to a minimum standard of public interest. If they don’t like it, let them get into another line of work – give them 60 days to get their wires out of our dirt and then sell the franchise to provide network services to a competitor who will promise to give us a solid digital future in exchange for our generosity.

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Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He runs MuniNetworks.org as part of ILSR's effort to ensure broadband networks are directly accountable to the communities that depend upon them.