Sunday, November 13, 2011

The New Info Wars

To some, the Internet is a vast and danger-ridden expanse. You hear it all the time; "there's no delete on the Internet", "once it's on the web, you can never take it back", "you have no way to know who you're talking to", etc. In some ways, the Internet can provide true anonymity in an increasingly connected world. The Internet contains everything, for anyone, without discrimination; from the exalted to the abhorrent. There is no obscene, everything is obscene. Places like 4-chan pop up where 'anonymous' takes on a new life, a persona of its own. Nothing is taboo. Shock sites, file sharing, and pornography exist in the same 'space' as churches, schools, and libraries.

Right now, the scariest part of all, anyone with a computer can search and view anything, at any time, from the comfort of their home, office, public library, mobile phone, or internet coffee shop. So your grandma can keep up with her grandchildren, find her favorite recipes, and research brands and products while your brother can peruse (yes I mean peruse, as in intently look, not "browse" meaning to skim over) videos of people hit by buses and midget porn, while trolling the Sesame Street forums. It also means that if somebody decides to link to a shock site in grandma's kitten video comment section, she and countless other unsuspecting people with know EXACTLY what 2 girls, 1 cup is.

But when you really break it down, the Internet is about commerce. Best Buy, Walmart, Amazon, Overstock, New Egg, Barnes and Noble, and homemade wholesaler Etsy are all vying for your retail dollars. If you search for a product using Google, Bing, or Yahoo, you will get results from a litany of sources- large and small- and have the freedom to evaluate the options yourself. You might find, a small store in New Haven Ct., sells that Canon 50D for MUCH cheaper than Best Buy, and even shipping it to Nevada, you get a bargain. Or you might find that your text books are way cheaper from Amazon than your college bookstore, if you're willing to wait for them. If you want to research a product you can find reviews from dedicated sites and from angry customers, they you are able to figure out for yourself if that much hyped holiday-must-have is a good purchase.

It's a double edged sword. But you have to take the good with the bad. Or at least that was the FCC's stance. For years, the Federal Communications Commission enforced standards on web service providers like Comcast, Charter, AT&T, etc. These providers must, no matter the content of the site, provide equal and open access to information. Amazon couldn't pay to be the first/only website to come up when you search for books, the New York Times can't pay to push the New York Post to the back page. The FCC required companies to be neutral, fair, and disallowed them to use their power in providing access to alter or limit that access. They aren't allowed to play gate-keeper. Or they weren't, until an appeals court decision in 2010. Comcast challenged the FCC power to regulate broadband internet services, and the court agreed. So in December 2010, the FCC had to agree to a compromise, granting more power over the content of wireless Internet providers to the providers themselves. Service providers and investors hail these changes as positive, but opponents from all over note the potential for abuse of power.

Not only could companies pay to be put ahead of their competition, businesses could pay to eliminate sites they find questionable. Take file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay or Utorrent. The MPAA and RIAA have been at war to stop their content from being traded over the internet using these sites for years. Congressional hearings, injunctions, raids, lawsuits against children and grandmothers, and subpoenas have flown left and right. But under the new rules, not only would Sony-MCA be able to pay for prioritization over RCA, but the RIAA could pay Comcast to filter and disable any searches or links to torrent sites. The law bans ISPs from blocking access to 'legal' content, but file sharing of copyrighted material is illegal, so that's ok, right? No- because file sharing sites and torrents are not only used for illegal file sharing. Many smaller artists and companies make their files, and their products available for fair-use, and wide dissemination using torrents. Even 'major' musical acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have released their albums over the Internet in this manner.

Additionally, rules were added to allow ISPs to create tiered access systems. Like with data plans currently, you pay more for more speed, more bandwidth, and a growing number of providers are charging more for how much data you actually use. But current plans are in works to allow them to charge you more for "premium" web pages. So for $35 a month, you can have access to, government services, and YouTube, but if you want Facebook and the Wall Street Journal, you'll have to purchase the $50 plan. FOX News videos will load at 16Mbs speeds, but CNN videos will be throttled to 5Mbs- you'll be waiting longer for content to load from sites that don't pay up. That is, if you can access it at all.

Then the worst possibility of all comes up. Who, if not the FCC, gets to decide what is illegal content? The Internet does not obey political boundaries- there are no state or country boarders between sites. But laws do vary, not just from country to country, but from state to state. With power shifted into the hands of the people who stand to benefit MOST from this arrangement, there is little incentive to play fair. Many countries like China, Iran, and North Korea have strict bans on illegal content. So you can't access Facebook, Twitter, CNN, or Google. What if ISPs like CommCast or companies like Microsoft, who find themselves frequently in competition with sites like Google, decide those sites shouldn't be available to their customers? Or what if a site is illegal in China, and a ISP is owned by a Chinese company- so they block access to that site by their American clients? What if companies pay to 'throttle' access to articles and information that might be negative to their business, or demonstrate criminal action?

This compromise, and the loss of power by the FCC is no compromise at all. It is a direct effort by powerful companies to limit the flow of information. Where the Internet used to be an equalizing factor, a bit of the American dream where anyone can find or be anything, it is at risk of being turned into a class system. Knowledge is power, and somebody wants to decide who gets to be plugged in.

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