January 20, 2014. Last week, a US court struck down ‘net neutrality,’ taking the internet out of the public domain and generously placing it under the control of a handful of global telecomm giants. What Americans can now look forward to are higher prices, blocked websites, censored emails and an internet pattered after the cable TV industry, where monopolistic corporations decide what websites make up the internet and how much you will pay to access it.
Court ruling gives ISP's the right to pick & choose what websites its customers can & can't access. Image courtesy of Telecom-Cloud.net.
When a US court struck down the FCC’s right to enforce its 2010 ‘Net Neutrality’ rule last week, it basically said the FCC has no authority to regulate the internet. And just FYI, ‘net neutrality’ stands for ‘network neutrality’, not ‘internet neutrality’. But ironically, that’s exactly what the court ruling destroys. It takes neutrality out of the internet and replaces it with a handful of corporate gate keepers who can now decide what websites comprise their proprietary internet, and how much it will cost you to access it. In a sense, the ruling makes the internet disappear and turns it into Cable TV.
Internet v.1 – US military’s secret weapon
In the late 1960’s, the US military came up with a brilliant idea to develop a modern technology that would allow soldiers and commanders to communicate in ways and speeds never dreamed of before. It was the first vision of what we know of today as the internet. As detailed by InternetSociety.org, in 1969 the very first internet server, or ‘hub’, was turned on at UCLA. For the first time since computers were invented, humans could now access information stored on what we call today, ‘the cloud.’
But what makes the internet special is the ability for computers all over the world to communicate with each other. So, the second phase of the creation of the internet was bringing a second hub online. Sending emails from a spot in UCLA’s computer to another spot in UCLA’s computer was one thing. Sending emails to a computer located miles away was their goal. The internet may have been born when UCLA turned on the power to their server. But it came to life and took its first breath when a second hub was turned on at Stanford.
On that day in 1969, when the first internet message was sent from UCLA’s computer to Stanford’s computer, the internet was truly born. Within a month, two more servers were added, one at UC Santa Barbara and another at the University of Utah. Already at this early stage, University teams were hard at work testing the limits of their new creation. After sending text, they quickly began devising ways to send visual images. They also began working to solve a problem we all take for granted today – how to make command or function that ‘refreshes’ the computer screen with the most current information.
Internet 2 .0 – too cool to keep secret
It didn’t take long for the US military and the West Coast universities to realize what they had created. This ‘web’ of theirs, or the ‘world wide web’ as it would be called, was just too amazing to be kept secret and used only as a US military communication tool. Already, open-minded visionaries were dreaming of what the internet could become and its potential benefits to mankind.
By 1985, the internet was up and running as we know it today. But it was only being used by the US Department of Defense, corporate defense contractors and the universities that helped develop it. New tools like ‘electronic mail’ were being used thousands of times daily. Other government agencies quickly designed their own ‘intranets’ like NASA and the Department of Energy. Computer labs around the country also began experimenting with the new technology. The genie was out of the bottle.
By 1990, the internet had grown from 6 hubs, each with 1 internet connection, to 21 hubs with multiple connections each. The number of individual intranets sharing those servers soared to 50,000 networks on all seven continents plus outer space. 29,000 of those networks were in the US where the government was winding down its funding and participation while corporations like AT&T picked up the baton.
And by 1995, federal agencies began to regulate the new technology and the government officially defined the word ‘internet’ for the first time. The world wide web was seemingly open to anyone and everyone, or at least those with a computer, the knowledge, and a way to access the far-off servers housing the content.
Internet 2.1 – US courts give corporations ownership of the internet
When a US court ruled last week that the FCC had no authority to force corporations to be neutral in the way they provide access to the internet, most consumers had no idea what that meant. But internet experts and lovers of the open global platform have spent the past few days coming forward to warn Americans what the court ruling means to them.
Neighbors of Microsoft and longtime tech experts, the Seattle Times began their reporting of the court’s ruling against ‘net neutrality’ saying, ‘If you like how cable television works, you’re going to love how a court decision this week could change the Internet.’ Basically, that turns out to be one of the best analogies to explain to novices and non-experts what the ruling opens the doors to.
Surprisingly, the internet is a lot like the world of cable TV. In both cases, there is a ton of content out there sitting isolated and unseen or unheard on someone’s computer. Also in both cases, there are hundreds of millions of people who want to access that content to watch and listen to it. It’s the business model of the corporations that connect the people to the content that drastically differs between the two, until now.
Before now, every website on Earth was accessible to every computer user in the world with an internet connection. You just needed to know the web address to get to it. If the site was private, it was up to the individual site owner to password protect access, which many have done. There were no designed walls or barriers to entry to the world wide web because the entire internet was a product of the US taxpayers and the few government and government-sponsored entities who controlled it had noble intentions. But that was the internet we knew as of last week. The US court ruling took control of the internet away from the FCC and turned it over to for-profit corporations.
The new internet
Baring an appeal by the FCC or an act of Congress, which most experts believe will not happen, the internet will drastically change in the coming months and years. Supporters of an open internet who criticized the ruling fear the world wide web will quickly turn into a mirror image of cable TV. Basically, the three-judge panel ruled that whoever owns the hard wires that connect consumers to the internet’s distant servers controls the rules, prices, speed and content delivered over those lines.
One common analogy being used is that of Comcast, Netflix and Amazon. Before the court ruling last week, Comcast was forced by the FCC’s ‘net neutrality’ rule to give all its internet customers equal access at an equal speed to all websites, including Amazon and Netflix. Going forward, Comcast is free to make a deal with either Netflix or Amazon against the other. Comcast is free to slow or block access by its tens of millions of customers to the on-demand streaming movies from Netflix, forcing people to buy and rent them from Amazon. Or vise versa.
Or more likely, as some critics warn, Comcast could shut them both down because Comcast rents on-demand movies itself and closing off consumer access to its two main competitors would create a huge advantage, and huge profits. And that’s why many are saying it will cost average Americans more money and wipe out small businesses dependent on internet sales. In order to gain an advantage, or to keep the ISP’s from playing favorites, content producers like Netflix, Amazon and every other website in the world may have to pay the handful of internet providers like Comcast big bucks just to be a part of their internet. And those higher costs won’t come out of investors’ profits. They’ll be paid for with higher prices to consumers in every industry.
Long story short
The point of comparing the internet to cable TV is because in both cases there are millions of content producers out there that consumers would love to see. But the cable companies now hand-pick 100 or so of the millions of networks out there to make available to their customers, and they charge cable TV subscribers a fortune each month for the service. For the remaining millions of networks, the world doesn’t even know they exist.
Now imagine logging onto the internet tomorrow morning. Instead of having an internet address bar that you can enter an address into, you only have a drop-down box. That box contains the 100 websites that make up the internet, including the big banks for online banking purposes, the big retailers for easy shopping, the 6 news conglomerates so people can get the news, a couple social media sites, a music site, a movie site, and of course a porn website and a sports website or two to keep everyone happy. That’s it. That’s all tomorrow’s internet could be, at least in America – just like your monthly cable TV subscription.
It doesn’t have to be so of course. In the court’s ruling last week, it didn’t strike down the government’s authority to regulate the internet and keep it fair and open. It didn’t even strike down the idea of a ‘net neutrality’ law. Instead, it simply declared that the FCC’s own rules bar the agency from applying the rule to internet providers in the same way it does to the telecomm monopolies.
The fastest and surest way to reverse the court’s ruling and protect internet freedom again is for Congress to pass a Net Neutrality law. The American people invented the internet. The American people spent billions of dollars developing it. The American people should be able to keep the internet open and fair. The question now is, who will Congress give control of the internet to – the American people or the telecomm and cable corporations?
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