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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Column: Social contract 2.0

If you use the Internet frequently (I’m talking to you, everyone!) the debate over network neutrality is the most important political issue you’ve never heard of. Simply stated, network neutrality has a dream: that one day, all internet traffic will be treated equally, regardless of content, connection or provider. Regardless of application, device or network. Net neutrality means two people with the same level of Internet access will be able to connect to each other at that level of access.

You’re still not convinced; I get it. After all, there’s no dream here, the concept is a dull one and net neutrality seems to be a reality. Legal theorist Jonathan Hart has called the principle of net neutrality a “solution looking for a problem,” to indicate that we have nothing to fear. Opponents of neutrality in the industry see no need for more government regulation, more policy, regulation and code. As such, the telecommunications industry (in particular, Internet Service Providers, or ISPs) has found an ally in conservative groups such as the Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Citizens Against Government Waste.

A lot of individuals without connection to either industry or politics see no need for reform either. The only time you lose Internet access is when there are too many people logged on at the CoHo. Nobody is restricting your access, right? Not exactly. Net neutrality is under attack in three ways.

In 2007, the Associated Press investigated allegations that Comcast was selectively limiting some Internet traffic for its subscribers. The investigation found Comcast guilty of intentionally slowing peer-to-peer connections, the kind of connections used by applications like BitTorrent and Limewire. While Comcast is in the right for limiting a platform for illegal activity, achieving this end through data discrimination is less than desirable.

Moreover, service providers are aggressively campaigning the government to craft legislation in their favor. Time Warner, Qwest, Verizon, AT&T and Comcast have already spent $218 million to lobby congress against net neutrality. Between 2006 and 2008, they contributed $24 million in campaign donations. They’ve gone from shaping Internet traffic to shaping politics.

Finally, major service providers are working together to frame the terms of the debate. Google and Verizon announced last August their vision for the future of Internet policy. Both now oppose total net neutrality, instead in favor of some restrictions. For wireless providers, both oppose neutral network requirements of any form because the medium is still being developed.

But the principle of net neutrality might still seem unnecessary. At the present moment, the intentions of industry are directed toward protecting lawful access to every level of Internet and allowing innovation to flourish in a competitive environment. If access is being restricted today, they argue we shouldn’t have that type of access anyway (access to peer-to-peer networks, that is). Prima facie, this is not a bad thing, and it hardly calls for an outcry.

However, the problem is not that service providers are preventing unlawful access, but that our access does not come through a mutual understanding. Because there is no set of laws that guide appropriate and inappropriate behavior for Internet Service Providers, net access is predicated on their good faith. Even though their actions are noble today, the lack of a formal “Internet Bill of Rights” gives them leeway to abuse power. For example, the lack of a clear statute allows Comcast to slow connection speeds between peer-to-peer connections without any legal consequence. As it stands, the Internet is too widespread a medium, too powerful a platform, to be secure from these abuses.

Imagine if this is how a government ran. Rather than working through a constitution or set of laws and regulations, the government acted to represent our interests with their institutions. In good faith, they would spend our tax dollars wisely, go to war justifiably, and set up a court system judiciously. Nobody would be comfortable with that. We have a set of governing documents, and we still demand accurate and appropriate representation under the law 200 years later. When power, money and freedom are involved, good faith doesn’t cut it. As the Internet is coming to encompass all three, we need to begin the process of creating a fair contract.

There are politicians, industry groups and experts fighting on your behalf in Congress and the media. But what this debate really needs is your voice. Don’t wait for your access to information to be limited for you to take action.

If it’s not already too late, you can e-mail your thoughts to RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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