The internet freedom fight for the future

Last week I had a conversation with a local business owner in northern Minnesota who provides WiFi internet to her customers. Or, at least, she did. Her internet provider shut down her service because someone, presumably a customer, had illegally downloaded music using the connection. Efforts to implement security to prevent such downloads did not work, so after the second suspension of services she has stopped providing WiFi until they figure something out.

Her efforts to stop the problem seemed to be in good faith, yet her business now operates at a severe disadvantage to larger, corporate-run competitors in her town. I can only assume that these companies either have more expensive software, run their own servers (ignoring such problems), or have some other kind of security arrangement with their provider unavailable to this woman and her small company.

I’m not here to advocate for illegal downloading. Rather, to me, this story seems emblematic of a coming battle that might be over before most people even know it happened.

The citizens of our country now use the internet as part of their everyday lives. People like me now depend on the internet for our work. But control of the internet is only nominally held by the people. Large telecommunication companies, wireless companies and their larger corporate families have vast amounts of day-to-day power in people’s use of the internet. Though regulations exist, there is very little legal protection for people such as the business owner in my example.

Related to this are the larger battles for what’s called “net neutrality,” a big issue in the blogging world my wife and I inhabit. Big companies would like to further monetize the web by creating different tiers for access and dissemination of content, with a pay-to-play system for the fastest, most reliable connections. Opponents of this idea advocate for what’s called “net neutrality,” or the belief that the internet — like radio and TV broadcast frequencies and city cable services — belongs to the people, not the companies that do business over the channel.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a lightning rod for partisan criticism, has probably established himself as the highest-profile official advocating for net neutrality. He’ll have a helluva re-election fight in 2014 and you can bet that internet providers will have some input into the position of his eventual GOP opponent (though, to be fair, they have tremendous input into the Democratic party as well).

Rural internet users like me have few choices for access. We pay $70 a month for satellite access that is often slower than advertised and subject to bandwidth limits that prevent any kind of regular use of streaming media or content production. Upload speeds will prevent me from podcasting from my house until new options arise. No laws are being broken. I agreed to the terms with my provider, because I had no choice. I routinely advocate for public initiatives to expand better, more diverse high speed internet options to rural areas, but do so against the pressure of private companies who would likely acquire the networks anyway.

A major freedom of speech issue is coming, and it won’t come in the form of a law. It will come in the form of a policy for which you must click “I agree” or go back to your printing press.

This belies the notion that government needs to be reined in to preserve liberties. This sentiment is partially misplaced. Yes, our democratically-elected government can impose restrictions, occasionally does, but has not done so lately for largely political reasons. In any event, a system of legal recourse — one part judicial, one part electoral — exists to check this power.

Your government might be able to wrest your beloved incandescent light bulbs from you because of its radical liberal environmentalism (this is sarcasm), but private companies control your access to the electricity needed to run those bulbs and has de facto influence over the materials you choose to read in their lovely white glow. From television programming, to car, home and medical insurance, to access to the internet and wireless networks, private companies exert great control over our lives. That control is expanding, and so-called advocates of “freedom” on issues like guns and hydrofracking are willing conspirators.

Many good corporate citizens exist and you can argue that market forces contain corporations to the public good, but I have no more faith in that notion than a conservative has in the government. Our collective dependence on the strength of blue chip stocks in the portfolios of the middle class prevents the sort of intervention in corporate doings that is a regular part of democratic government. In any event, a rogue corporation with enough capital has all the tools it needs to take over the government in a decade or less.

Fact is, I have faith that my First Amendment rights prevent the U.S. government from shutting down this website so long as I respect the legal rights of others and the criminal code. But my current web host Google reserves the right to shut me down at any time with no recourse. All I have to do is give them a reas….

Just kidding! I love Google. I must love Google. And there you go.


  1. I personally think that there is no need for such legislation now nor will there likely be in the future. Companies like Google, Netflix, etc are in favor of such legislation because some of their products (or all of their products in the case of Netflix) use substantial bandwidth and will be using even more in the future. If internet companies (Comcast, Charter, Qwest, etc) are having trouble supplying enough bandwidth to meet demand, it only makes business sense for them to charge more to those customers who use it most. What Franken’s bill would do would basically force everybody who uses the internet to pay for those who use it a ton. That isn’t right.

    Another reason why companies like Google are in favor of this legislation is that they envision themselves getting into the premium TV business eventually. They want to make sure internet companies cannot block access to their site once they start competing against those companies. For instance, if Google is eventually able to offer certain premium channels that the cable companies now provide (ESPN, CNN, Food Network, etc) on an a la carte basis, obviously that would be a big threat to companies that provide internet and cable (Comcast, Time Warner, etc).

    One big reason I’m against Franken’s legislation is that it would let the government start to regulate the internet. Not only is Franken’s piece bad legislation, but it would start a slippery slope of the government trying to regulate where they have no business doing so.

  2. Well stated Todd…

  3. Not surprisingly, I disagree. There is a fundamental issue here. Who owns the internet? I believe the internet belongs to the people and should be regulated like a utility or broadcast frequency. Keep in mind that the internet WILL be regulated. I argue it should be regulated by democratically elected officials in full view of the customers. If it isn’t, it will be regulated by a few
    (maybe even just one) big company acting sometimes in the people’s interest but always in its own.

    Media trends being what they are, what we now call the “internet” will essentially be the “media.” TV, movies, radio, video phones, and the like will all come through the same tube. Yes, huuuuuge bandwidth issues. That’s why I’m always harping on high speed infrastructure. What we have isn’t adequate. While you can use the “why should everyone pay for heavy users” argument now. That’s what my provider argues when they cap my bandwidth. But the definition of a heavy user changes by the half year and within five years the market share of “heavy users” will be much higher. In 30 years can you imagine someone not wanting to call grandma on a HD video phone, watch a movie on demand? This is happening, question is how and who runs the show.

    I respect the concerns of a big internet provider. They have a lot to lose if they can’t be competitive. Many of these companies have operated in regional monopolies for a long time, banking the profits and not investing in lines and new technology. Good for the stock, bad for the system. So while Comcast might be a loser in the bill and Google is a beneficiary, the bill isn’t there to benefit Google. It’s there to preserve a fair system of delivering the internet, rewarding companies who provide the public service in the most efficient, innovative way.

    This is the VERY reason you have government regulations at all. I know the word “regulation” is a boogie man for some, but this is why we have government at all. Look to the examples of early radio to see what happens when libertarian principles are applied to a mass medium that uses limited transmission space. Chaos that ends up unprofitable and fails the public.

    The internet is very, very important to the future of the world economy. We must get this right, for all the reasons I’ve stated here and in my above post.

  4. You’re liberal thinking is wrong Aaron, the “people” do not own the internet. They did put a dime into it, you haven’t put a dime into it, I haven’t put a dime into it.

    To have it highjacked, nationalized by the government would be unjust.

    The internet has been one of the worlds most innovative productivity advancements of all time…with minimual government involvement (no, algore didn’t invent it).

    Governments couldn’t have possibly done what the free market has done in advancing the network.

    Turning “the internet” over to the government would stifle it’s meteoric growth…if not kill it.

  5. Your “conservative thinking” is wrong, R47. Where does this get us?

    You are actually wrong on a couple points. The Internet was developed by a lot of people, but enjoyed significant public investment not least of which from the public universities where early computer-to-computer communication took place. I can’t put a number or a percentage on this, but to say it’s an all-private endeavor is laughable. The private sector dominates it now, of course, but its development was complex.

    We are not talking about “turning over” the network because that implies that there is one owner, and there is no such thing. That’s why I say “the people” which is loosely speaking the public interest, including businesses, consumers and the government (which, you fail to realize, is US as expressed through our votes – even when our specific votes might be different). But the government wouldn’t take over or “run” the internet. It would ensure that all players had equal access to non-private networks and that consumers are protected as this medium goes through its adolescence.

    We do this for power companies. We do this for radio and TV. Locks, dams, highways, railroads and mineral extraction all involve public/private partnerships. Blind loyalty to strict definition of private enterprise you advocate is as dangerous to this country as the socialism you clearly hate so much.

  6. Just a couple of weeks ago some fellers came and buried some fiber optic cable in the public right of way in front of my house in Hibbing. I get my interwebs off a pole in the alley owned by the city. That satellite that gives you interwebs likely had and still has some involvement from NASA associated with it. The wireless internet I got on Wabana uses public airwaves. There is good reason for the government to assert some rights over the interwebs to allow everyone equal access, as we all have some interest of the infrastructure. Even the United Nations has asserted the interwebs is a human right. It’s not something us plebians should just give away to the corporations, and I support Franken et. al in their efforts to keep it equitable for the common man.

  7. If the United Nations says it’s a right…it must be so. I’m sold..

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