Cybernaut 

Keep the net neutral

The thing about news is that it’s supposed to be upsetting. We’re supposed to know about wars and plagues and famines because we’re supposed to care about our fellow human beings. However, for every BBC World News and The Economist out there, there seem to be a dozen Fox News/National Post clones that are tainted by their corporate ties and political points of view. Real news almost doesn’t exist anymore.

The good news is that the web has restored some semblance of democracy to the media by allowing non-establishment news organizations (e.g. news blogs, user-powered link sites) to compete on a level playing field with the biggest organizations. If you know where to look, it’s not that hard to get the real story and alternative points of view.

The bad news is that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — the same crack organization that fined CBS half a million dollars for Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl — may once again tilt the playing field in favour of corporations.

In the U.S., the FCC is currently weighing a proposal that would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to charge website owners based on the number of visitors they attract, the amount of bandwith used during those visits, and for the speed of their service. Currently, U.S. law dictates the ISPs have to provide the same service to everybody without discrimination, with the goal of allowing non-profits, educational institutions, and others free and open access to the web.

It’s a little like buying an unlimited bus pass — everybody pays the same to use the transit system, no matter how often they ride or how big a knapsack they carry. This basic principle has been applied to the web under a set of laws and regulations that provide for “net neutrality.”

Now imagine being charged extra by the bus driver when you take 40 trips in a month instead of 30, or paying a higher fare if you want to bring your snowboard onto the bus. That’s kind of what the ISPs are looking to do.

While the FCC regulates the web, it’s the ISPs who make the investment in fibre optic cables, switches, servers, wireless antennas, and other infrastructure to keep the information moving. Based on that level of investment they believe they should be able to charge websites for the burden they place on that infrastructure. An online pine furniture store attracts far less traffic and uses a lot less bandwith than a site like YouTube, so they want YouTube to pay more.

The ISPs may get their wish. The public consultation period at the FCC over the proposed rule changes closed last week, and many believe that the FCC board — including executive members appointed by the current administration — will kowtow to corporate wishes.

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