Saturday, December 23, 2017

On Net Neutrality

Last Thursday (December 14th), the Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of a former Verizon corporate lawyer, voted to end net neutrality regulations that protect the open Internet. These regulations prevented Internet service providers from treating data differently. If you wanted to stream video, read news, or check social media, your ISP could not block or slow down access to those sites.

Now, however, your ISP will be able to throttle and block access to sites. For example, Verizon, which owns Yahoo and the streaming service go90, might throttle speeds to Google and Youtube. Users of Google Fiber might find themselves in a similar situation. Another potential development is that popular sites may be grouped into packages, much like with cable television. If you want high-speed access to Facebook and Instagram, for example, you might need to purchase a 'social media package' in addition to your regular Internet service fees. Meanwhile, Comcast has promised that it will not discriminate against competitors to its media property NBCUniversal. Without net neutrality, all we can do is trust a company that already charges fees to Netflix for high-quality streams and is legendary for its abysmal customer service.

Advocates of the free market would tell you that net neutrality regulations prevent competition and stifle innovation. Anyone else can tell you about this 'competition', where most locations have only one or two ISPs to choose from, and where Americans pay considerably more for Internet access than users from other advanced countries. Ending net neutrality will simply exacerbate this situation. It is nothing other than a gift from the FCC Chairman to his former bosses.

What, then, might a socialist Internet look like? The Socialist Party stands for the right of ordinary people to express opinions and communicate freely by vastly expanding the public sector of all forms of mass media.  To that end:
·         We oppose private ownership of the Internet backbone.
·         We call for direct public ownership of at least 50 percent of the total bandwidth.
·         We call for democratic ownership and control of the Internet domain naming system.

Public ownership of the Internet backbone would physically remove the ability of ISPs to discriminate against competitors. Public ownership would also mean that revenues could be used to improve the network, ensure universal access, or fund any other project that the public chooses to support, rather than being given to shareholders. We can see how a public Internet backbone could work by looking at Chattanooga, Tennessee. This city of 176,000 offers one gigabit speed Internet access for 70 dollars a month on its publicly-owned fiber optic network. For 300 dollars a month, residents can get ten gigabit speeds.

Contrast this with the situation in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, home to several research universities, NASA, and dozens of major corporations. Comcast offers me a 55 megabit speed connection over its privately-owned copper wire network for 50 dollars a month. For 70 dollars a month, I can get a 200 megabit connection, one-fifth the speed that anyone in Chattanooga could get. The only other provider for me is AT&T, who offer a 10 megabit connection for 40 dollars a month. That’s not a typo – that’s ten megabit speeds, or one one-hundredth of Chattanooga speeds.

By maintaining public ownership of at least 50 percent of the bandwidth, we can ensure that social objectives are able to be pursued. These objectives would include providing space for individuals and groups to express opinions and thoughts that are not profitable, or allow artists to create without having to worry about needing corporate sponsorship.

The Domain Name System is similar to a phone book for the Internet; it resolves human-readable website addresses to the alphanumeric strings that the Internet needs to connect. It is currently controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This body is not accountable to any outside group, yet it controls this vital lynch pin of modern life. Public control of the Domain Name System would assure that we could properly oversee this critical component.

The Internet is a massive technological structure that connects people from all across the world. By its very nature, there can only really be one Internet. Private control of the Internet allows and encourages the consolidation of wealth into increasingly fewer hands. Public control, in contrast, would ensure fair and equitable access for all.

---James Wheat

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