A Call to Arms

Did you hear it?

It might have come to you as background noise on your TV or radio news.  Maybe it was a story in the business section that you paged by.  Maybe you saw it on your feed reader and decided not to read it because you’re not a Verizon customer so it doesn’t affect you.  But within the last two weeks a quiet statement by two technology giants has rocked (and some suggest threatened) the future of the Internet.

In order to fully explain this story, I need to briefly explain the concept of net neutrality.

Net neutrality has been a hot button issue among tech journalists and consumer advocates, and one that educators need to be more aware.  The principle of net neutrality is that an internet provider, such a Verizon, ATT, Comcast, or others should not be allowed to filter or prioritize Internet sites based on types of content, content subject, or tiered payment.  Advocates of net neutrality argue the “bits is bits,” and it is not the Internet providers role to discriminate between them.

Let’s look at a few possible examples to better understand this.

  • Bit torrent sites are high speed file sharing sites.  Often these sites are used for the illegal transport of copyright material such as music or videos.  This is not the only use for these sites, but to curb the file sharing (probably prompted by the RIAA and the MPAA) providers might slow traffic to these sites in order to discourage their use.
  • Most Internet providers are either telephone or television companies.  Broadband Internet access is creating new opportunities for alternatives to traditional media.  Providers might slow (or charge for premium access) to sites such as Skype or Netflix or Hulu and effectively cripple these and other change agents
  • Even a less overtly discriminatory program can have profound effects.  A tiered Internet structure that feeds sites at various speeds  based on payment, appears open, but in reality this would give an enormous advantage to existing large companies over startups and “amateur” content.  The democratic nature of the Internet would be destroyed.

Efforts by Internet providers to circumvent net neutrality through government action have so far proved ineffective thanks to public awareness campaigns by technology journalists and some “enlightened” companies like Google (read their defense of net neutrality from 2006 http://www.google.com/help/netneutrality_letter.html).

However, on August 9, 2010, Google and Verizon issued a joint policy statement regarding the future of net neutrality.  Though carrying no force of law, this is a serious proposal intended for legislative consideration.  The statement in essence says that wired Internet should maintain principles of neutrality, but that wireless companies because of limited resources and more available competition should be able to manage their networks however they see fit including price tiers for content providers and for consumers.  Not surprisingly, AT&T quickly chimed in to express their agreement with this statement (so much for the competition element).

Of course Google and Verizon framed this statement as preserving net neutrality for wireless, still the primary Internet access for most.  However, with the growth of the market for smartphones, iPads and similar devices, and other mobile platforms, it is becoming clear that mobile wireless broadband is the future of Internet access.  Google and Verizon have just guaranteed the stability of the horse-drawn buggy market while crippling the automobile.

Within the technology community this quickly became the subject of debate and condemnation.  The largest question was why Google would flip on their stance on this issue.  Most have suggested that Google’s involvement in the mobile phone market through the many phones using the Android operating system has merged their corporate interests with those of the phone companies.  Many sarcastic remarks were aimed toward Google’s unofficial “Don’t be evil” motto and a sense of betrayal pervaded the tech community as many felt the mask was dropped revealing the corporate monster beneath.  Among the editorials were comments by Jeff Jarvis, the author of What Would Google Do (http://www.buzzmachine.com/2010/08/10/internet-schminternet/) and the somewhat rudely titled article on wired.com (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/08/why-google-became-a-carrier-humping-net-neutrality-surrender-monkey/).  Even Jon Stewart of The Daily Show took his shots:  “Google doesn’t get to write laws.  They just photograph and post where everybody lives and republish every book ever written and negotiate with the Chinese government while building floating data centers in the ocean.”

And from the educational community…

Silence

I have yet to see (and I deeply apologize to anyone whom I may have missed) an education blog take serious issue with this policy statement.    I know that this is a difficult topic for most teachers, that teachers now are primarily engaged in beginning of the year activities, and that many teachers are not yet using tools that might be affected by this.

But for goodness’ sake, this is the future of the Internet for ourselves and for our children and we must advocate for them.  The development of a two-tiered Internet with easy access to the corporate message and slow inconvenient access to voices of contradiction (and maybe the voice of our students) is a betrayal of the promise of the global democratic marketplace of ideas.

We need to face this challenge as teachers have always addressed challenges, by educating ourselves, staying aware of developments, and voicing loudly our concerns in blogs, in our networks, and to our representatives.

We can’t stand by and let the Internet be lost.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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Date: Wednesday, 18. August 2010 21:16
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