Net Neutrality: May First/People Link Takes Two

2010-01-08 4-minute read

When net neutraliy first surfaced as an issue years ago, it was hard to get behind. Not the principle - which states that providers of Internet access should supply a connection without restrictions or preferences based on where or who the content comes from - that should go without saying.

Instead, it was hard to get behind political organizing in support of this principle. At the time, the debate was defined by two corporate giants: Google was standing in support of net neutraliy, and Verizon was angling to charge content providers like Google money to be given preferential bandwidth treatment.

The battle grounds became the Google/Verizon corporate negotiating table and the US federal regulatory agencies - both historically have served as empowerment sink holes for anyone trying to build a political movement.

Furthermore, given Google’s various moves to control the Internet, it was hard to publicly support an issue so clearly staked out by them. With all the revolutionary work being done to develop free and open source software and protocols, the global convergences of the world social forums and climate change activists, stopping to help Google defeat an obviously bad idea proposed by Verizon seemed like a red herring.

As co-directors of May First/People Link, our leadership committee has given Alfredo and I the political responsibility to provide day-to-day leadership based on a solid assessment of every situation affecting the work of our organization and members. We chose to steer our organization clear of net neutrality, and now we realize that was a political mistake.

Last week, Google and Verizon announced that their feuding is over. They released a joint proposal for a legislative framework. Despite predictable applause from the tech mainstream, the implications are fairly profound and dangerous.

You cannot get away with standing up in the United States and saying that net neutrality is a bad idea. That’s like saying publicly that profit should come before people. Instead, the recommendation supports the principle of net neutrality when it comes to a wired (e.g. DSL or cable connection) connection, but maintains that because of the “unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks,” wireless Internet delivery should be exempt.

Most of the commentary focused on how this will impact cell phone access to the Internet - which is critically important. However, also important is the impact on wide area wireless networks. Similar to the wireless network you might have in your home or office, new wireless protocols are being developed that can cover more than your living room - providing the possibility for your home Internet connection being provided by anyone in your city - without the need for installing a wire to your home.

Between cell phone access and wide area wireless access, DSL and Cable will soon lose their status as the fastest growing way to get broad band Internet. If the most promising future method of delivering Internet access is too technically and operationally “unique” to be covered by the principle of net neutrality, then the future development of the Internet is in real trouble.

Fortunately, we have a few things going for us.

The first and most important is that we have public opinion on our side. And we should use it. This issue is not a technical one - the question is: when we use the Internet, should we have equal, non-discriminatory access to everything? Few will disagree.

Second, let’s build alternatives. Most attempts at controlling the Internet have failed miserably (consider the scrap heap of technologies to keep you from copying your music and videos). When, in an early violation of net neutrality, our service providers prevented us from sending email, we routed it through a different port. We can and will test the limits of every attempt control and profit from our usage of the Internet.

Most importantly, however, we need to join this fight. The future of our Internet depends on it.