Roughly three weeks ago, the United States celebrated the 'birthday' of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great leaders of the 20th century (and to my mind, one of the great leaders of American history). I put birthday in quotes because it wasn't the actual birthday, rather it was the designated holiday for the celebration.
So what has the birthday of a martyr got to do with net neutrality?
Let's step back and think about things for a minute, and consider what he gave his life for, what it was that he DIED for.
We constantly look for ways to group people. This is, IMO, a function of the way most of us think. Our brains are marvelously complex, but can only handle so much information. Thus we look for common charactaristics to allow us to group things together; we think about screws in general, so that we don't have to denote a particular screw. After all, in most cases, one screw is as good as another, so long as it is of the proper type. Thus, this 'grouping' serves a useful purpose.
Sometimes though, as humans tend to do, we get things twisted, and we use this 'grouping' concept in ways that don't make sense. We do silly things, STUPID things, like saying 'Everyone with this skin color is inferior' or 'Everyone not of this race is inferior' or 'Everyone not of this faith is inferior'.
Dr. King had the courage to stand up and say 'This is stupid'. He wasn't talking just about racial equality (though that was the vehicle of his expression), he was talking about HUMAN equality. The United States Declaration of Independece says many things, but among others, it says this:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, LIberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Though the wording of the time used the term 'men', the IDEA being expressed is that we are ALL equal, none above the other except when we, IN COMMON CAUSE, agree that some should be elevated for the purpose of LEADING us.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence is not alone in this expression, it has been written and refined down through the centuries. Indeed that expression continues to crop up in writings all over the world. It would seem clear, then, that the natural desire of people is to be considered equals.
Ok, that's all cool, but what has that got to do with net neutrality?
565 years ago, Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. While the various pieces of the technolgy had existed in varying forms for many hundreds of years, it was his unique combination of methods and assemblies that resulted in a revolution in Europe. Prior to the invention of the Gutenberg press, reproducing written documents was an arduous and expensive proposition, requiring the employment of scribes (people specially trained in writing, and in the art of faithfully reproducing the written word). This meant that only nobility and the wealthy merchants could afford books. Since only the wealthy could afford books, generally only the wealthy could read (it didn't make sense to learn to read when there was nothing TO read). The Gutenberg printing press changed all that. Suddenly, books could be printed relatively cheaply. Reading and writing became skills that had practical use for the common man and people could readily exchange ideas and thoughts en mass with others. Most crucially, what someone had to say no longer had to be obscured by the person saying it.
The Internet is having the same transformative effect on us today. Printing a book, or even a pamphlet, is a costly affair for most people today. Puting up a website however, requires one to invest some time learning the 'language' (HTML) of the web, and finding a $10/month hosting site. In fact, it is possible to find sites that will host your writing for free. And the great thing is, that it doesn't matter if you are black or white, male or female, Muslim or Christian; the power of the written word is such that it allows us to get past our preconceived notions of who is inferior and who isn't, just long enough to maybe communicate some useful thoughts to each other.
That is all being threatened. It is being threatened by big corporations that think they own the Internet. The problem is that, in a very real way, they do. Outfits like Verizon, AT&T, MCI WorldCom, and Cable and Wireless operate much of the bandwidth used by the Internet backbone. Without them, the Internet would be crippled. These corporations, though, owe their allegiance to the bottom line, rather than to the people. As a consequence, their decisions are driven by considerations of profitability, not what is best for society as a whole. I have no particular qualm with this per-se - the Internet arguably wouldn't be as widespread as it is were it not for commercialization. However, the Internet was originally created with taxpayer money. It was commercialized because it was felt that was the best way to drive it forward, and that seemed to work very well. Perhaps now (and I can't believe I'm saying this, as much as I loathe government intervention in ANYTHING) it is time that the taxpayers take control of it back.
See, the problem here is that the corporations need to make money. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but as I said, corporations are not constrained by moral considerations; their imperative is to make money, and they will do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal, up to and including breaking the law if they think they can get away with it. In fact, they will break the law even if they know they CAN'T get away with it, if doing so will ulitmately be more profitable than obeying the law.
Huh? Ok, let me give you a case in point: In 2002 SBC was fined $6 million for failing to open it's network to competitiors. In 2000, SBC was fined $27.2 million for failing to provide timely service to one of it's competitors who was leasing bandwidth. In fact, over the last almost 10 years, SBC has been fined on NUMEROUS occasions for failure to comply with regulations. Now, if the goal of a company is to make money, why do you suppose they would be getting fined, not once, but REPEATEDLY? Simple, paying the fine is cheaper than opening up their network to competitors. In other words, it is more profitable for the company to BREAK the law, than to OBEY it.
We are at a critical point in the development of the Internet. Yes, there is a lot of cruft out there to wade through. Fortunately, search engines like Google are getting better and better at helping us sort through the chaff to get at the wheat. And the wheat is what this is all about.
Let's put this a different way. What if tomorrow, the network corps got their way. All of a sudden, your favorite sites either became very slow, or had to shut down altogether, because they either couldn't afford fast bandwidth, or they couldn't afford bandwidth at all? What would that do to you? What if one of those web sites belonged to you? What if it was your blog? Not everything worth saying is being said on the big corporate web sites. In fact, one could argue that very little worth being said is there.
In the U.S., we still seem to have some schizophrenia when it comes to equality. We say we want equality, yet we continue to pass laws which do not treat us as equals. We say we want equality yet we continue to discriminate by economics, by opportunity, by education. To be sure, we seem to be gaining ground, but we still have a long way to go. Keeping the Internet open to everyone is, IMO, vital to the effort to ensure that someday, everyone will be treated as equals.
Am I all wet? Are there points that I missed? Tell us, in the forums!