Net Neutrality and Internet censorship

It’s not often that a technology as radical, accessible and world changing as the Internet comes to be. It’s even more rare that the technology allows its users shape it to their needs from the beginning. The most amazing part of the Internet, though, has been its ability to let all opinions be voiced equally, to give free, unregulated access to information. There is a very real possibility, however, that within the next few years the Internet as we know it may cease to exist.

The free, interconnected global network is already a myth. The list of countries that censor Internet content at the government level is steadily growing. China, with its so called “great firewall” is probably the most widely known but Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam also censor the web. Australia has dabbled in internet censorship under the guise of the public good, implementing a system that was supposed to filter out child pornography. The system, however, is most often used as a means to suppress politically incorrect material and enforce copyright protection.

If you think it can’t happen in North America, then you’d be mistaken. The United States is currently attempting to pass a bill that would create an “Internet blacklist.”

The bill is called the “Combating Online Infringement and Copyright Act,” and was drafted a few weeks after Afghan war documents were posted to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. It would create “two blacklists of Internet domain names. Courts could add sites to the first list; the attorney general would have control over the second.” The bill is so vaguely worded that sites like YouTube could potentially be blocked.

Apparently a blacklist isn’t enough though, and the U.S is also attempting to put in regulations to make “wiretapping” the Internet easier. The New York Times reports that the regulations would require that communication services like BlackBerry’s messaging service, or peer-to-peer systems such as Skype be “technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order”. Implementing such a system would essentially destroy the decentralized, user-generated nature of the Internet.

Government regulations may be one threat to free flow of information, and censorship acts may one day be introduced, but the more likely threat will be corporate compartmentalization. Before the Internet became the giant web we know, it was comprised of a series of smaller, incompatible systems. According to the Economist, the networks converged because “everybody had strong incentives to join: consumers, companies and, most important, the networks themselves.” This connection was based on everyone having equal privileges and access to the Internet, which is still the case today. The fight to preserve this ideal had been dubbed “net neutrality.”

Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, has envisioned a nightmare scenario if net neutrality were to become a thing of the past. “If operators were allowed to charge for better service, they could extort protection money from every website. Those not willing to pay for their data to be transmitted quickly would be left to crawl in the slow lane.” This would mean bigger corporations would get more of the bandwidth, essentially drowning out the differing opinions.

The change is coming slowly — and a lot of it is already apparent. Services such as streaming video or music are available by geographic location. Try streaming Hulu outside the U.S., or Spotify outside of Europe, and you will be presented with an apology message. The Economist notes that websites are moving to proprietary systems, often incompatible with one another. Facebook is a great example, as the Economist points out, “Users have identities specific to Facebook and communicate mostly via internal messages. The firm has its own rules, covering, for instance, which third-party applications may run and how personal data are dealt with.” Google also has a whole suite of proprietary apps and sites, which now even include a browser. Apple has gone so far as to provide proprietary hardware and software as evidenced by the iPod’s dependency on iTunes and the app store for iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads.

The future of the internet may look grim, but it’s easy to forget the monumental effort that would be required to police a global network of computers. As we all know, file sharing is alive and well, even though it has been rallied against for years. Before you get too worried, don’t forget that with millions of computers and tech-savvy users at their keyboards, we’re sure to come up with a solution.