Internet balancing act

It’s the middle of summer and the headlines are talking about a number of political and economic issues that will affect the shape of the internet. This week, I look at the delicate levers that need to be balanced to keep the internet whole.

Copyright vs. Free Speech

The fight over SOPA, a bill that was looking to create a fairly repressive “shoot first, ask questions later” when it came to copyright policing, may be over but the friction between large companies owning copyrighted content and internet users will continue to grow, creating more attempts at getting bills like SOPA through the US Congress. And while most of the candidates for presidential office have distanced themselves from that bill, the silence from all of them on the Internet Property Attache Act (IPAA), which reintroduces a lot of the SOPA components, is noticeable.

In order to fully understand the pressure and vigilance required to keep the internet free and open on that front, one only needs to look back at the fight over SOPA. The bill, at the time, was enjoying widespread support from members of both the Republican and Democratic party. It wasn’t until Reddit decided to target a few candidates (including, interestingly, the presumptive Republican Vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan) so they would consider making their opposition to the bill clear, that things started to turn around. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and others, did put some more pressure in by officially rejecting the bill, and a widespread national campaign was engineered to kill it.

After a massive effort, the US congress decided to shelve the plans and free speech advocates cheered. But the cheering may be short-lived as this kind of effort is something that’s existed for a couple of decades now, with the copyright holders gaining incremental control of the internet as time goes on. This is probably one of the most visible fight and one of the most salient ones in terms of the future of the net.

Surveillance vs. security

Going along the line of monitoring internet usage is the constant question of balancing security interests that keep the population safe and keeping the government from over-reaching in its attempt to monitor what people do. Striking a balance between surveillance and security has always been a difficult things to do but is increasingly so as more extremists groups leverage the wonderful technologies that the net encompasses to organize, coordinate, and supply efforts that result in the death of innocent individuals.

As a result, when people who do not have a full understanding of what internet communities are composed off start drafting bills to keep the general population safe, they end up with ham-fisted bills like CISPA which was aimed at providing government agencies with better ways to monitor the internet (ignoring existing laws used to provide monitoring on phone lines as a model) and ended up providing few checks and balances on government surveillance (Paul Ryan voted in favor of the bill, in line with the rest of his party; other candidates for office did not take positions on it but indications are that the Obama administration is also in favor of the bill).

Here, the fight is between government surveillance and an individual’s right to privacy. This is one of those tough challenges where the right solution will be one that will leave all sides pretty unsatisfied as law enforcement and military agencies will claim they are not given enough leeway and privacy rights groups will complain that they have been given too much.

Advertising vs. privacy

But not all battles are due to government trying to exert more control. In other cases, the government is trying to work on protecting users. One of the big battlegrounds when it comes to that protection is, ironically, privacy rights. Earlier this week, Google was fined US$22.5 million by the Federal Trade Commission for subverting controls set up in Safari to avoid tracking. The amount was seen as too small by many, who said that the lack of admission of guilt showed it was a mere slap on the wrist.

There is, however, a growing backlash against such effort. The most recent attempt as finding a different approach is, which aims to raise $500,000 to create a non-advertising based system to compete with Twitter. Dalton Caldwell, founder of ad-supported Imeem and failed Instagram competitor PicPlz, aims to build a Twitter clone that would rely on a $50 yearly membership instead of advertising to support itself. It’s an ambitious goal that, if successful, could reshape how people think of online services. It is, however, faced with the challenge of convincing users who have been largely reluctant to using paid services online, that a paid alternative is better than a free one.

Caldwell, however, is tapping into an interesting trend. There is, among the digerati, a growing resentment of advertising as the only model for online. The traditional ad model of display or text-based advertising may be running its course as people look to engage with brands in more significant ways. But in order to create that engagement, the brands need to know more about the users, creating that challenge of protecting a users’s privacy vs. providing greater flexibility.

Access vs. speed

Last, but not least, is the question of connectivity. On the one hand, customers are asking for ever faster pipes to connect them to the internet as streaming video and other high bandwidth services become more common. On the other hand, there is still a large portion of the population that has yet to connect to the internet and/or has little money to do so. This drives to a new set of battles around access to the core infrastructure of the 21st century. Just like access to electricity and potable water define the first half of the 20th century, and access to telephones defined the second one, equal opportunity in the 21st century may be defined by accessibility to the internet.

Recent statements by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam seem to point to the company going in the direction of lowering access to the internet for lower income people. Last month, McAdam said that they would start phasing out their copper telephone line network in areas where FIOS is available and that they were looking at the option of phasing it out in areas where they offered LTE wireless service. The challenge this represents is that the new services are roughly double the price of the original ones, which could lead large portions of the population to disconnect. There is, however, an interesting silver cloud in this. As Verizon looks to disconnect its copper infrastructure, there may be an opportunity for municipalities to take over such infrastructure and repurpose them as lower speed internet access networks available to all. Because the infrastructure is already in place, it could lead to an explosion of new services being rolled to the public in a more cost-efficient manner.

A need for involvement

All those fights could lean one way or the other but it is up to you, along with every other user of the internet, to decide which way that should be. Apathy, in itself, is a vote in favor of those with the loudest voice or the most money to influence regulation so it supports their goals.

As technologists (and most of my readers fall in that category), it is up to you to work on helping government understand and articulate better rules and laws to continue growing the internet and its descendants. Whether it is through involvement with open standard producing organizations or involvement in helping write new laws, it should be the responsibility of anyone who derives a portion of his/her income from the net to help preserve and improve it.

In the early days of the internet, and even in the early days of the commercial internet, such people were more common in our industry. As a new generation has grown expecting the internet as it is today, it is the responsibility of those older (some would say wiser but I would argue it’s debatable) users and creators to educate the next generation in the necessity to stay engaged in the political dialogue that shapes our network on a daily basis. To assume that the net will always be free is a fallacy that can only be corrected if you assume that this will be the case because you, and others around you, will always continue to counterbalance interests who feel the net ought to be otherwise.

There have been many elections in the past year around the world and, in each case, the positions each candidates have articulated in regards to the net have gotten clearer. It is now the USA’s turn and it is up to each of us to hold our politicians accountable and ask them to be clear as to what they would do to the internet, if elected. As one of the greatest form of communication of our days, the survival and growth of the internet underpins every other bit of policy one could put forward and its shaping will give all of us greater clarity as to whether politicians envisions a future that reflects what was done in the past or one that is built on what we can hope for a better tomorrow.

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