Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Freedom vs. corporate authoritarianism: The FCC and net neutrality, Apple and WikiLeaks


As we move into an ever more virtual, digital world, there can be no genuine freedom without net neutrality. But it has to be all-out net neutrality, not limited net neutrality that gives ISPs, our corporate overlords, the ability to restrict our access to content.

The FCC -- with three Democrats and two Republicans -- voted yesterday "to approve its first ever Internet access regulation," as The Washington Post reports. The new rule "ensures unimpeded access to any legal Web content for home Internet users." 

But not really.

While the regulation is certainly a step in the right direction (one that Republicans oppose and are doing everything they can to block, so beholden are they to our corporate overlords and so opposed are they to genuine free speech, and access to free speech), and while President Obama claims it "will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech," it only goes so far -- and not nearly far enough.

Two of the FCC's Democratic members agree but essentially had to vote for "weak rules or no rules at all." Wherein lies the problem? Where does the regulation fall short?

The agency's two Republican members voted against the rules, showing support for Internet service providers who say the regulations will impede their ability to create new business plans to expand their broadband networks and boost speed.

[FCC Chairman Julius] Genachowski said the measure represents a compromise between industry and consumer interests.

"I reject both extremes in favor of a strong and sensible framework -- one that protects Internet freedom and openness and promotes robust innovation and investment," Genachowski said.

The same provisions do not apply as strongly to cellphone users because the agency voted to keep wireless networks generally free of rules preventing the blocking and slowing of Web traffic.

The Republican argument is both dishonest and nonsensical. Republicans want ISPs to make as much money as possible while controlling access to content -- that is, bluntly, to allow ISPs to restrict accessible content to corporate-approved content; that is, to Republican-friendly content.

Genachowski's argument is somewhat defensible, though as the deciding vote he didn't have to appease the Republicans -- it's not like they voted for this supposed compromise, after all. A more robust regulation could have passed 3-2 as well.

The problem is that this supposedly "strong and sensible framework" has a gaping hole in it -- namely, Internet access through mobile devices and wireless networks. Under the regulation, you'll be able to access what you want at home, through your ISP, but not necessarily on the go on your iPhone, BlackBerry, or other portable device. So how does the new rule protect freedom and openness?

Here's how Sen. Al Franken put it on Monday:

As a source of innovation, an engine of our economy, and a forum for our political discourse, the Internet can only work if it's a truly level playing field. Small businesses should have the same ability to reach customers as powerful corporations. A blogger should have the same ability to find an audience as a media conglomerate...

For many Americans -- particularly those who live in rural areas -- the future of the Internet lies in mobile services. But the draft Order would effectively permit Internet providers to block lawful content, applications, and devices on mobile Internet connections.

Mobile networks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless would be able to shut off your access to content or applications for any reason. For instance, Verizon could prevent you from accessing Google Maps on your phone, forcing you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it costs money to use and isn't nearly as good. Or a mobile provider with a political agenda could prevent you from downloading an app that connects you with the Obama campaign (or, for that matter, a Tea Party group in your area).

I'm not sure if the new rule is "worse than nothing," but Franken goes on to address its other problems and makes a persuasive case.

Yes, it's still a step in the right direction, I think, but, given Republicans' objections to net neutrality altogether, shouldn't Democrats push for all-out net neutrality instead of promoting compromises, as Obama himself is doing, that give ISPs much of what they want? Why isn't the choice between net neutrality or no net neutrality instead of between some net neutrality or no net neutrality?

Once again, this looks like Democrats caving in to Republican demands and allowing the range of options to be shifted to the right.

And, politically, this should be a winnable issue for Democrats, who can make the case, as Franken does, that this is about access to content generally, not just to left-wing, pro-Democratic content. Conservatives are very much in bed with our corporate overlords, which are generally on the Republican right, but who's to say that non-neutrality wouldn't result in restrictions on access to right-wing content as well?

Isn't freedom non-partisan? Can't Democrats make the case that you're either for freedom or for corporate authoritarianism?

**********

Case in point:

As The New York Times reports, Apple has removed a WikiLeaks app from iTunes, claiming that the app "violated [its] developer guidelines." "Apps must comply with all local laws and may not put an individual or group in harm's way," said an Apple spokesperson. (The app was unofficial, not formally endorsed by WikiLeaks.)

As The Guardian notes, "this is all part of the momentum behind the campaign to silence Wikileaks, and ultimately to extradite Julian Assange."

Whether you approve of WikiLeaks or not, though, the issue isn't WikiLeaks, or Assange, but full access to content that governments and ISPs might not like. I don't support white supremacism, but I support access to white supremacist content, however despicable I may find it. And, while the truth-revealers at WikiLeaks are the current targets of governments and corporations, I'm sure you can find an extraordinary amount of white supremacist and neo-Nazi content on the Internet. The point is to keep it all free. That's net neutrality.

No one says you have to like all the content you can find on the Internet. You're free not to like it, just as you should be free to access it.

Of course, Apple's point is about illegality. An app promoting child pornography, for example, should never be allowed. Some content, obviously, is illegal.

But WikiLeaks and child pornography are two very different things. As Sean Paul Kelley puts it at The Agonist, "Wikileaks has broken no laws that the New York Times hasn't broken. The Pentagon and Biden and The State Department have all said no one has died as a result of the leaks. But it has embarrassed our leaders."

So is this really about illegality? Or is it not rather about a major corporation (once thought to be a radical one, contra Microsoft) blocking access to legitimate content?

Kelley adds: "Free speech will not be regulated by the Federal Government. The Bill Of Rights guarantees it won't. But there is nothing in the constitution to stop corporations from regulating speech. This is exactly what is going to happen. Most people get their internet from wireless devices these days, so expect more and more rigid firewalls."

There's the problem.

And it doesn't help that Democrats aren't fighting for all-out net neutrality and that the president of the United States, once thought to be a progressive, backs such corporate-friendly compromises. (Yes, Republicans are fighting this with a vengeance, but they should actually be very happy about the FCC's regulation. It's change they should be able to believe in.) 

I'll give the FCC a single cheer, maybe a cheer and a half. But with Republicans frothing at the mouth, it'll take much more from Democrats to make net neutrality a reality.

In this case, compromise in the name of limited freedom is a terrible vice.

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