Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Internet Neutrality

I just stumbled onto a group on Facebook called "Dissolve the CRTC." In brief, it's a group who believes that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has strayed from its mandate to protect the interests of Canadians in the media in favor of corporate interests; the group is advocating the dissolution of the CRTC to replace it with a more neutral organization.

On their website, they had an article called "Canada's Internet Explained" which linked to this video on YouTube:

What concerns me here is the concept of "Internet neutrality" (also known as "network neutrality"). For more details, I strongly recommend watching the video above; it explains it very well. However, in brief, the principle of Internet neutrality states that ISPs may not restrict the type of equipment, protocols or content you can use and access on the Internet. Everything connected to the network is equally accessible to everything else.

This blog, for example, is just as easy to access as a huge media giant like CNN. If you type in "" then, "," both sites come up just as easily. In effect, I can compete directly with CNN, reaching just as wide an audience; if I happen to have a story more interesting than anything CNN has at the time, I could conceivably "scoop" them. Me, one man, one computer, competing against a worldwide media giant.

Of course, that's not the nature of this particular blog; I'm not a journalist, but you get the idea. Anyone out there who wants to compete against anyone else on the network, whether that someone else be a major worldwide corporation or a single person sitting at a single machine, the playing field is completely level. Unlike with traditional media, the individual can conceivably generate just as much exposure for themselves as any major media outlet.

This is one of the Internet's founding principles; it's something we all understand about it instinctively. What concerns me is the fact that this concept has been given a name. Why does that concern me? Until now, the concept described by the term was part of the "common sense" of the Internet. It didn't have to be defined; it's part of what makes the Internet what it is. The fact that it has to be defined, however, implies that this is no longer "common sense."

If "Internet neutrality" is no longer common sense then it stands to reason that something is changing about this fundamental nature of the Internet; if this is true then it also stands to reason that at least some part of the Internet is no longer neutral. In fact, it's not. There have been many stories in the media lately of major ISPs restricting access to competitors' sites and technology; this is a violation of Internet neutrality.

Now that I think about it, though, violations of Internet neutrality aren't really new. AOL, for example, is most famous for its restrictive interfaces and proprietary protocols that make it very difficult to use non-AOL products to connect to their network. AOL, therefore, is probably one of the earliest examples of a company that violates the principles of Internet neutrality by attempting to control how its users connect to the network.

Of course, AOL used to be fairly unique in this. Most ISPs would allow you to access the network free and clear with any platform and/or software you wanted to use; so long as it was compatible with the Internet's protocols and you knew how to use it you could use it. Unfortunately, however, the idea of trying to control how an ISP's users connect is starting to go "mainstream;" most of the major ISPs today have been guilty of this in some way, shape or form.

That's why I prefer smaller, independent ISPs. They have no motivation to restrict their users' access because their open, unrestricted access itself is their biggest advantage over the bigger ISPs. That's why I chose Eastlink; they offer decent broadband speeds with no restrictions. I can use whatever computing platform, browser, E-mail client etc. I want and visit any site I want. That's the way it should be. That's what makes the Internet the powerful tool it is.

Most people tend to just go with what the majority uses. Windows, for example, is the most common computer operating system not because it's the best but because it's what everyone's used to. The problem is, once people get used to something, even if it's not the best product available, people tend not to aim any higher; they get used to the performance of a given product and stick with it because it's familiar.

The videocassette format wars, for example. VHS and Betamax ("Beta" for short) were the major formats. As we all know, VHS won that war but what most of us don't know is that VHS was actually the technologically inferior format; Beta had superior resolution and sound quality but (in the beginning) fell short in recording time which was its downfall. Due to its superior quality, Beta continued in professional video use but for home use it disappeared entirely.

Beta did fix its recording time issues; later versions of Beta allowed recording times to rival VHS and Beta picture and sound quality continued to be superior. So why didn't Beta trounce VHS? For the same reason that the Macintosh doesn't trounce Windows: once people are used to something, they tend to stick with it because it's familiar even when better products or services are available. Most people prefer conformity; they prefer to be part of the majority to "fit in."

Being in the minority, however, can have advantages. Most Macintosh users, for example, don't have virus protection. Why? The Mac is in the minority; there just aren't as many out there. A virus written for Macs won't spread nearly as far as one written for Windows so most virus writers focus on Windows so their viruses will spread. Also, the Mac has superior security; writing a virus for a Mac is therefore much more difficult in the first place.

If it wasn't for Internet neutrality, Microsoft might very well have prevented Mac users from accessing the Internet in the first place. It is Internet neutrality that allows Mac users like myself to access the Internet equally with Windows users or, for that matter, users of other even less common systems like Linux, Solaris, Amiga OS and so on. Everyone has the right to access the network with whatever compatible piece of technology they wish; that's as it should be.

Big media giants are trying to change that. They want to restrict the Internet and monopolize public media access the same way they once did when newspapers, television and radio were the only major worldwide media accessible to the public. Back then, if you wanted to be heard by the world, you were at the whim of the companies that ran these media; if they didn't want to put you on, you were out of luck.

If you want to be heard on the Internet, go to any of a plethora of blogging services, get a page up there and, within minutes, your words can be seen by anyone in the world who wishes to read them. Get on YouTube and you can even let people around the world see and hear you with less restriction even than traditional television. There are no channels or range restrictions; a video on YouTube is instantly global the moment it goes live on the network.

The Internet is, in effect, the ultimate evolution in freedom of speech; restricting Internet access would, therefore, amount to censorship. Do we want to go back to the days when the major media decided what we, the public, sees, or do we want to be able to decide for ourselves what we want to see?

"When liberty is taken away by force it can be restored by force. When it is relinquished voluntarily by default it can never be recovered." - Dorothy Thompson

1 comment:

  1. tera camus1:21 PM

    the difference between legitimate media and blog writers are vast...most people don't read blogs for their news value, but for its opinion. there will always be a need for newspapers/tv/radio/magazine news and their independent objective journalists to give people, including blog writers, the facts needed to express and form opinions. there is no other trusted news source. so it's no wonder people/corp/media see the value of the internet but no one has quite figured out how to tap into it to make big money. no wonder telecommunications companies in particular want to control how people access it. they want to control how $$ flows to back to them potentially.


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