Landmark day for the internet

The FCC will pass net neutrality regulations today.  The movement for “net neutrality” has been gaining steam in recent years, and the government wants to ensure that no entity will be able to censor what internet users can access:

When asked if that made it a crime for Assange, Biden said Assange could be proven to have violated the law when it turned out he encouraged or helped Bradley Manning, U.S. intelligence analysts believed it was behind the leaking of the document of the United States Embassy.

I’m sorry, my mistake: that’s Vice President Joe Biden describing how the US Government is going to drop the hammer on Julian Assange for the stuff he put up on the internet.  That’s apparently completely unrelated.



Shut up, I have freedom of speech

Don’t want to do business with WikiLeaks?  You might find your website getting hacked, like MasterCard or Paypal.  (And you might also get hacked if you represent women who are making accusations of rape, depending on whom they accused.)  Participants in what has been dubbed “Operation Payback” seem just organized enough to take some time off from complaining about not being able to get unlimited movies and music for free online to wreak a little bit of havoc.

The hackers’ concerns are echoed by DataCell, a company that helps WikiLeaks process payments.  DataCell is getting ready to sue Visa and MasterCard to force them to work with WikiLeaks, according to CEO Andreas Fink:

We strongly believe a world class company such as Visa should not get involved by politics and just simply do their business where they are good at. Transferring money. They have no problem transferring money for other businesses such as gambling sites, pornography services and the like so why a donation to a Website which is holding up for human rights should be morally any worse than that is outside of my understanding.

Visa is hurting Wikileaks and DataCell ehf in high figures. Putting all payments on hold for 7 days or more is one thing but rejecting all further attempts to donate is making the donations impossible. This does clearly create massive financial losses to Wikileaks which seems to be the only purpose of this suspension. This is not about the brand of Visa, this is about politics and Visa should not be involved in this.

To summarize what Fink appears to be driving in his sputtered sentence fragments: Visa should not be involved in politics, therefore Fink will use a political entity (the judicial system) to force them to do business with a political organization (WikiLeaks).  Fink and Operation Payback are each quick to defend WikiLeaks’s right to publish unpopular speech, but intolerant of other groups’ choices to simply take their business elsewhere.

The whole mess is a dress rehearsal for the coming clash on American internet regulations like net neutrality. If a site (like WikiLeaks) depends on other companies (like ISPs, hosting companies, and donation platforms) for their survival, will those companies be forced by law to support WikiLeaks and their mission?

Behold, your new internet!

Google and Verizon have an idea of what the open internet of the future might look like, and today announced a policy proposal that the FCC – and eventually Congress – may take into consideration as they wade through these issues.

Leaving aside the meat of their proposal for a second, the deal is a good financial move.  Internet carriers and internet services figure to have different opinions, and those entities are already spending a lot of money in Washington.  By agreeing on something now, these companies could save millions in lobbying and grassroots campaigns later.

But beyond the strategy is the actual proposal, and there are two items which stand out.  First, the proposal only applies to wireline internet carriers – the people who plug the internet into your house, also typically known as your cable company.  Verizon’s FiOS service is also under that plan, but unlike those carriers, Verizon also has mobile access points to the internet through Android smartphones.

The second is that, while the proposal does call for “transparency” among internet service providers, it makes no such call for transparency or “search neutrality” from the other companies that serve as gatekeepers – notably, Google and Facebook, the companies which provide the lenses through which you see the internet.

The result is a plan which does choose some losers, but which allow its proponents to maintain their business practices.  So the deal is a good move in more ways than simply keeping lobbying costs down, if you’re Google or Verizon.

Al Franken’s comical take on net neutrality

If you thought Al Franken would give up the laughs just because he sued his way into the Senate, think again.  The SNL alum has some of his best writing since the Stuart Smalley movie up on, which gave him a platform to discuss internet regulation:

“Net neutrality” sounds arcane, but it’s fundamental to free speech. The internet today is an open marketplace. If you have a product, you can sell it. If you have an opinion, you can blog about it. If you have an idea, you can share it with the world.

And no matter who you are — a corporation selling a new widget, a senator making a political argument or just a Minnesotan sharing a funny cat video — you have equal access to that marketplace.

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.

So here’s the internet we have: a free and open landscape where the merit of ideas matters more than how much money you have.  So we want to oppose net neutrality legislation and regulations that would change that landscape, right?

Apparently, not in Al Franken’s world.  Franken likens the evolution of telecommunications companies to his work on network television, and the media consolidation that went on in that medium.

Back in the 1990s, Congress rescinded rules that prevented television networks from owning their own programming. Network executives swore in congressional hearings that they wouldn’t give their own programming preferred access to the airwaves. They vowed access to the airwaves would be determined only by the quality of the shows.

I was working at NBC back then, and I didn’t buy that line one bit. Sure enough, within a couple of years, NBC was the largest supplier of its own prime-time programming.

There are two rebuttals to this.  First, networks buy programming from other providers all the time.  In fact, one of the biggest hits NBC had this decade, Scrubs, was produced by Disney ABC.  The second point is… well, how is that all-Universal-produced prime time lineup working out for NBC right now?

Today, if you’re an independent producer, it’s nearly impossible to get a show on the air unless the network owns at least a piece of it.

True, but has getting a show “on the air” ever been less relevant for success?  An enterprising content producer wouldn’t get the same audience online that he or she might get on a broadcast or cable network, but they aren’t being shut out of the media landscape.  If that’s the yardstick for success, wouldn’t we have to say the internet as it is works just fine?

Franken starts to make an analogy between internet services providers and cable companies – which is, incidentally, the argument on net neutrality’s side that makes the most sense.   But that assumes the market stays static – that is, that everyone continues to have a wire coming into their house, hooked up to their desktop computer, delivering the internet for the whole family to gather around.

But that isn’t where internet consumption is going.

At the risk of using myself as an example let me use myself as an example: in the morning, I usually check work and personal email on my Blackberry before rolling out of bed.  I check my home computer to see if the Yankees won the night before.  At work, I check sites like Politico routinely, and if an issue I’m working on is about to come up for a Congressional vote I might dial up CSPAN and watch online.  After work, I might go over to Starbucks with the laptop to work on a post or answer emails, using their WiFi.  Count ’em up – that’s four internet providers in a single day.  If I was traveling, there might be more connections – airports, hotels, even planes.   I dare you to try to keep content away from me.

The internet is not a utility like cable, it’s a communications infrastructure.  The providers can’t afford to simply keep content from you, because you can figure it out and change easier than you can if, for example, Comcast refuses to put the NFL Network on a basic cable tier.

Regulating the internet like telephones, or cable, or even broadcast radio and television doesn’t work because those are different technologies and consumed differently.  But don’t blame Franken’s lack of insight on the fact that he made his bones in old-school broadcast network television.  After all, he’s been trying to appeal to net neutrality cheerleader Google to wire Duluth for broadband.  Maybe he’s just trying to scratch their back in hopes they will return the favor later on.

All activism must not be neutral

As the net neutrality argument heats up, pro-regulation groups are bashing AT&T’s efforts to mobilize their employees against the measure.  When AT&T sent an email detailing the issue and inviting workers to post comments opposing net neutrality, Free Press, a liberal media reform group, called them the a-word – “AstroTurf.”

Free Press, of course, admits to doing the same thing – but argues that their email messages to subscribers driving traffic to online comment forms are somehow different.  Their activists, apparently, REALLY oppose net neutrality; AT&T’s employees acting through fear of losing their jobs.

AT&T workers should be fearful of losing their jobs – regulating AT&T’s internet will have an impact on its bottom line.  Free Press has a flimsy argument if you think about it – but it certainly wasn’t made to evoke thought.