My apologies and thanks to Mr. William Scott, J.D. for provoking this piece: my apologies because I couldn't help but turn this into a blog (and thereby, continue to work on it), but more a thanks because the topic, the inquiry, and the research aspect greatly interest me. I am sure I will be playing with this piece for some time.
Should We Bother with Saving the Internet?
My immediate reaction is that YES I want to maintain the right to research and learn via Internet without big business running that particular universe (as they seem to run everything else) and NO I would not want companies like Verizon telling me what I can and cannot see on the Internet...particularly when they can't even get my telephone direct debit right! The Internet seems to be the new and last frontier for truly free enterprise and research potential, and the "real thing" in terms of the Freedom of Information Act. We, as daily users especially, need to defend it.
Then, I read Net neutrality and politics don't mix by George Ou. A detailed rebuttal of specific net neutrality concerns. This was a helpful article from the IT perspective, again, not my area of expertise. Ou views the project to save the Internet as a scaremonger tactic to keep companies like Yahoo and Google in business. He says that there needs to be a system to keep the Internet orderly, otherwise search results would be chaotic. This makes logical sense to me, and it makes sense that to some extent, what we see on the Internet already IS being controlled by big business (i.e. Yahoo and Google), as is the general media (look at who owns the newspapers and television networks). It’s common knowledge that people pay to have their sites listed in directories, and the people who invest the most money get the most hits from search results. Still, there are at the moment at least enough search engines, independent blogs, small businesses, and personal pages that keep the Internet somewhat free, though not always as orderly as some people might like.
My husband, an avid game player, seems to agree that some of the hype about keeping the Internet free has been reduced to what Ou deems “scare tactics.” Hubby says this kind of thing has been a commonly discussed “threat” among gamers for a long time, that charging for email and Internet hours comes along every so often and always is defeated because too many use and appreciate the Internet to let it happen (particularly among the gaming population). Of course, he is not nearly as inclined as I am to write letters to my Congressperson, so it could just be that vocal users have consistently saved the Internet for the general population, and this is just one more battle to be fought.
Let me retrace my steps a bit and say I am a firm believer in the Freedom of Information Act, and when we try to repress information, censor, or limit access to information, we get ourselves and our country into problems. (See “We Need Fewer Secrets” by Jimmy Carter, Washington Post, June 2006.) Note that whenever a fascist regime comes in, the first people persecuted (that is, after the religious or ethnic group of choice) are the academics and the students, especially the vocal ones. Why? Because spreading education means spreading empowerment and freedom. Knowing how to think and not allowing someone to think FOR you can make you a mighty individual; doing so with ethics, integrity, sincerity, and thoughtfulness can make you an asset to humanity. The Internet, on its current developmental path, allows us the freedom to research varieties of sources from different perspectives, regardless of the authors' socioeconomics, access to specialized libraries, and/or ability to get something published. “Selling” the Internet to the highest bidders does us all a gross injustice because it suppresses the voices of those who might not otherwise HAVE a voice, and limits the right of all to read, write and analyze and to use their talents to their fullest potential.
Now take this from whence it comes. I am a proponent of government regulation, not because I think the government is the answer to everyone’s problems (indeed, in many cases, it is the CAUSE of everyone’s problems), but because the government assumably protects the rights of the individual. I do not consider businesses and corporations individuals, and so as far as I am concerned, the government is there to protect MY rights, and not Verizon’s or Comcast’s. Yes, industry and business are crucial to the economic and physical survival of this country, but a country ruled by business is like an ocean ruled by the sharks: most everything else will be eaten or killed, leaving nothing but some huge, pacifistic animals like whales that are just too BIG to eat and don’t care anyway because they eat kelp. As a “little fish,” I’m about tired of running away from sharks, and if they start swimming in through my computer screen via the Internet, it’s time to re-think the ocean.
What I am getting to is that first, I am not sure it’s the Internet itself we need to regulate so much as the big businesses that drive it. Let’s go back to the formation of this country as a metaphor. We had a lot of land (that we basically stole from the natives, but that’s another issue). We wanted to give people an incentive to develop it. We didn’t sell off, say, the Midwest territories to three people and say, “Here! Do with it what you want! Become overlords!” No, we offered land at a reasonable price to everyone, and everyone had to follow the laws of the country being developed.
The Internet is no different---it’s a vast land of mostly unexplored territory. And we don’t want information overlords. We want citizens of the net who agree to follow some basic rules (for example, don’t traffic drugs or children, and don't overcharge the consumer), and we want companies to do the same. Comcast and Verizon do not own our roads, nor should any big business own our Internet avenues and tell us what routes we can use and which we cannot. Individuals and companies are expected to follow the law, whether on the sea, on the road, or in cyberspace. So second (and certainly not in order of importance), we want to apply the rights of the Constitution and the tenets of the law to the Internet, and the only way we will be able to do this effectively is by finding concrete “real life” analogies to help us manage it. We must look at the Internet as a place and not just media. It's not the ONLY place, and it doesn't replace PHYSICAL places, but it is a place on its own. If we start looking at the Internet as something so foreign and abstract that we can’t rein it in, then we start to become more susceptible to arguments that favor activities and privileges we would never allow in the physical world. Treat Internet business issues the same way we would in any major city or state (and don't ignore the issues, as is the practice in SOME states).
Finally, in terms of actual regulation of the net, we DO need the same kind of enforcement and oversight on the Internet that we have in our streets, neighborhoods, and communities. We need cops looking at traffic and violations, agencies protecting consumer rights, mediators for those (serious) online spats, and yes, Homeland Security hanging out in chat rooms. And these entities and agencies must follow the laws as well. Yes, we have some of this in place already, but we don’t have nearly enough protection from the people who really understand the Internet and the kinds of crime that can take place on it. Police frequent bars and establishments known to have trouble; the same thing needs to happen on the Internet where citizens of the net become vulnerable in places like MySpace. Secret shoppers need to scope out scam shopping sites and the Department of Education needs to audit online campuses. We don't want the Internet to become a police state, but we do need more enforcement to keep the Internet safe (and that depends on us knowing what we are enforcing).
We want to preserve the best the Internet can offer, and the only way to do this is to maintain open access to information. So, should we bother saving the Internet? My response remains, "Without a doubt."
--Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt
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