Free Speech Online? Talk to me about Net Neutrality! – by “Evin M”

Without a new law protecting net neutrality, we're trusting dinosaurs like Sen. Ted Stevens and obselete case law to control free speech and govern technological platforms to which they do not apply...also I thought this was funny and tried in earnest to make it link to my blog post about free speech. from http://www.terminally-incoherent.com

At the end of September, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled a plan for net neutrality.  This set of rules solidifies the role of internet service providers as pizza guys and not as news networks—that is to say it explicitly disallows blocking or slowing access to specific applications or services.  Net neutrality keeps the “tubes” free from the prying eyes and interests of those who deliver the info packets to consumers, thus allowing free speech to not only occur but to be disseminated.  The proposed rules uphold the four pillars of network neutrality, which allow consumers to access any lawful online content, application, or services with any legal device in an environment that has sufficient competition among network, content, application, and service providers.  It also adds two more basic principles: ISPs will not be able to discriminate against certain applications or information and they must be transparent about their network management practices.

Senator Olympia Snowe and Senator Byron Dorgan are teaming up with Chairman Genachowski, and have begun to discuss legislation that would help scoot along the proposed net neutrality rules.  Dorgan, the senior member of the Commerce Committee, suggested that the congressional contribution to the initial network neutrality efforts could include some deadlines, to help move the process of adoption along.  The good political feelings might extend across the aisle, thanks to an olive branch extended by Chairman Genachowski which halted the development of a Republican-sponsored amendment that would tie up FCC funding.  That bill however, produced in angry response to the GOP’s disapproval of net neutrality, didn’t have much of a chance because of the Democrat’s hold on the senate majority.

Senate support has also been joined with a thumbs up from representatives of corporate world as Amazon, Facebook, and Google have voiced their approval of these rules in a letter to the FCC earlier today.  They make a pretty good point about net neutrality, suggesting that it will allow more applications to be developed and shared because creators will not be deterred by the possibility of having their content blocked or sidelined.  However, the approval is not universal.  AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have spearheaded the opposition force, citing, among other things, the difficulties of net neutrality in a wireless interface.

We’re in dire need of some governmental commentary on free speech and the web, as the Red Lion v. FCC case becomes increasingly obsolete.  This case, as Prof. Jack Balkin described today in class, relies heavily on the fact that sound information policy is premised on people’s role as passive information consumers.  Before Web 2.0, they didn’t have the opportunity to easily become active producers of knowledge with a readily accessible audience which includes other content producers.  With the entire business model of today’s new media grounded strongly in a participatory consumer culture, we can no longer apply the rules of the game from when media was a one-sided discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Free Speech Online? Talk to me about Net Neutrality! – by “Evin M”

  1. There seem to be two dimensions to net neutrality: content neutrality and protocol neutrality. It seems to me that the former is much easier to justify than the latter.

    Arguments that ISPs should be able to discriminate against traffic based on its content are increasingly rare, and examples of ISPs censoring content don’t seem to be driving the debate over net neutrality, at least in America. When the ISPs argue against net neutrality, they seem to focus on the network management angle, which justifies only protocol partiality if it justifies any partiality at all. That suggests that even the staunchest opponents of net neutrality have largely given up on content partiality. To the extent content-based preferential treatment exists, it’s source-based discrimination aimed at large corporate content sources rather than individual speakers, which doesn’t arouse powerful First Amendment objections. Put another way, ATT cares very much about you using Skype on your iPhone, but it doesn’t care what you’re saying.

    This distinction is important because free speech concerns only speak powerfully to content partiality, not to protocol partiality. Basing a net neutrality argument on First Amendment values (or free expression more generally) therefore seems to miss the central point of the debate as it stands now. At best, bringing free speech into net neutrality is an argument aimed at a threat that has more or less passed, a few examples excepted. At worst, it’s a sleight of hand to slip debatable protocol impartiality policy in under the unobjectionable cover of the First Amendment.

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  2. It seems like progress is being made on achieving net neutrality, which is good for pretty much everyone except these big companies. These companies may argue against net neutrality due to the additional strains that it will put on their networks (like AT&T and iPhone tethering), but they should be consistently upgrading their networks, and shouldn’t use their networks as a scapegoat for opposing net neutrality.

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