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The battle for net neutrality

About the author
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011

I'm afraid I can't help it. Whenever I hear about the highly influential Save the Internet campaign, the broad coalition fighting its case for "network neutrality" against the United States's mega telcos in Congress this week, I'm reminded of one of the emails I came across during research for my column on hoaxes last month. Here's how it begins:

"It's that time again! As many of you know, each year the Internet must be shut down for 24 hours in order to allow us to clean it. The cleaning process, which eliminates dead email and inactive ftp, www and gopher sites, allows for a better-working and faster Internet…"

Yeah, right (as the sulky teenager said to the physics teacher). We all know the internet is a network of ends, of servers and terminals connected to one another, pumping pornography and disinformation from many to many across stupid wires. If anybody's going to switch it off, it will be us, although what kind of super-telepathic lemming moment that would be doesn't bear thinking about. Perhaps when we're invaded by mind-controlling aliens.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor.


Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)

Once upon a time, when the humble pioneers of cyberspace started work on the early internet, they were designing a network whose future use was not yet defined. Confident that the possibilities of this network outreached their imaginations, early developers made the net deeply flexible. Their principle was "end-to-end": a basic tenet that assured the bottom-up, user-driven innovation of the internet for decades to come.

In simple terms, end-to-end locates all the intelligence in the machines at the edges or ends of the network, keeping the wires which connect them neutral, or "dumb", unable to discriminate against the data which flows through them beyond a simple policy of "first come, first served". Innovation comes from the edge – from individual computers running novel programs. The wires need no modification to run new applications – machines at the edge translate their wishes into the lingua franca of the net. The wires simply chug the data along in packets of 1's and 0's. This is network neutrality.

From email to the World Wide Web to eBay, new applications have mushroomed on the net simply because all it took to innovate was a computer and a connection. Providers of news services and commercial applications had no need to factor in strategic players in the distribution network. The wires were dumb: they could not hinder, they could not censor. Network neutrality dramatically lowered the cost of innovation, both in terms of structural legwork and in terms of risk. Innovation flourished.

Across enemy lines

But there was a silent, unwilling partner in this fairytale. During the 1970s and 1980s, as AT&T in the US and then BT in the United Kingdom were broken up by their respective governments, the monopolies were forced to allow competitive use of "their" telecommunications infrastructure. Newly-formed internet service providers (ISPs) rushed in to connect modems to this network of dumb copper wires, offering homes and businesses dial-up connection for the first time. The telcos let them get on with it, unmoved by this user-led curiosity called internet.

That soon changed. As early as 1999, Cisco Systems, who manufacture the routers which propel data around the net, produced a white paper entitled Controlling Your Network: a Must for Cable Operators. In it they advocate what some have dubbed a "walled garden" internet, where the "first come, first served" approach of data transmission is replaced by "policy-based" routing.

Cheered on by the Federal Communications Commission, US telcos and cablecos have been in deep conversation with American lawmakers ever since (usually in courts of law, but occasionally, one imagines, on luxury yachts in the Caribbean), deciding whether they should be allowed to control information that runs through their network in a cleverer way than first come, first served. They want to run the wires like a market, selling faster speeds to those who can pay and creaming off some profit in the process.

The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 (which sounds so much like doublespeak, it makes me want to dance) is the latest manifestation of this desire, and it's got everyone from Gun Owners of America to MoveOn.org fairly riled. Just like our hoax email, the COPE act promises a "better-working, faster internet", especially with regards to spam emails, but its many critics claim measures to safeguard network neutrality are weak at best.

So how might an internet without network neutrality look? Suppose that, in this environment, you went online to book a safari holiday. Your homepage, the page that appears first when you click on to the net, is sponsored by your ISP. Let's call them coyote.net. Helpfully, coyote.net lists a number of services available to you – books, music, news, views, theatre and holidays, the latter proclaiming "the best deals on the Web". You dutifully click through.

coyote.net/holidays is run by ACME Travel Co, a brand you recognise. It offers some great-sounding safaris, although you're not convinced they represent the last word in value, and a couple sound more like colonial game-hunts. You recall an article in last weekend's newspaper about a firm specialising in eco-safaris – you find the article and type the web address in the box at the top of the screen. Then something funny happens.

Tim Berners-Lee, designer of the World Wide Web, writes in his blog on network neutrality:

"The Internet is increasingly becoming the dominant medium binding us. The neutral communications medium is essential to our society. It is the basis of a fair competitive market economy. It is the basis of democracy, by which a community should decide what to do. It is the basis of science, by which humankind should decide what is true.

Let us protect the neutrality of the net."

Your computer slows down to the kind of speed you thought you'd never have to suffer again the first day you subscribed to broadband. Empty boxes appear on your screen where pictures should be, with red crosses and tantalising titles like "Elephant at sunset". The line at the bottom of the screen reads "receiving data" for several minutes, and your patience wears thin.

What are you thinking as you hit the back button and return to ACME? That the eco-website is unprofessionally put together? Slow to load and unprepared for the kind of traffic produced by a tiny plug in a broadsheet supplement? That eco-tourism is all very well, but if they don't have the goods to back it up, then why bother in the first place?

In fact, your independent eco-website is crossing enemy lines. Machines plugged in to the net along the wires your site is crossing have spotted it, and are choking the data to honour coyote.net's financial agreement with ACME Travel Co. You are just one of the millions of users unwittingly keeping archaic ACME at the top of its field, while disadvantaged innovators struggle to compete. Even if you did wise up to the wires' (ahem) wily antics, chances are you couldn't do a thing about it.

The COPE act (also known as the Barton bill) is expected to go to a full House of Representatives vote this week. After an amendment to protect net neutrality gained considerable ground in a House Energy and Commerce Committee vote last month, campaigners are quietly positive that their grassroots lobbying will defeat COPE in its current form. Let's hope they're right. And let's hope representatives have been using the internet recently, so they might have an inkling of what they are about to save.


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