The 'Global Warming' of the Internet

Right now, you're snug in your chair, reading the Huffington Post. Hope you're enjoying it -- because (much like global warming) if things keep going the way they are, that simple pleasure could all take a nasty turn south in a very short period of time.

The free and open internet is about to change dramatically. If the telcos get their way in Congress this fall (I'm looking at you, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast), we consumers might wake up one morning and suddenly find the Huffington Post takes forever to load, or doesn't load at all. The videos you just posted on YouTube might suddenly become slow, jerky and unviewable -- whereas video on say, foxnews.com, plays just fine and dandy and in HD.

If something called Network Neutrality is thrown out the window, then this uneven online world is the one we will all be forced to live in very soon. And what is Network Neutrality? In a nutshell, it means that everyone connected to the internet is created equal (that sounds familiar, doesn't it?) You are endowed by your service provider with certain inalienable rights to upload and download without bias or priority. EBay is no more or less important than your grandkid's blog, for example.

But the telcos want to change that. They want slap premiums on traffic online. And they want to make us pay tolls. If we refuse, then our quality of service will be crippled. And they want to charge 'protection money' to sites like Yahoo and Google simply to ensure these websites continue to load as speedily as they do today. And if they refuse ... well, maybe these websites'll have an accident, see? Maybe they'll start to load slow -- or not all.

Earlier this year, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 was introduced in the House. Democrat Ed Markey attempted make Network Neutrality law with an amendment, but was defeated 269-152. But the Act is still very much alive, and Network Neutrality would certainly benefit from a Democratic Congress. (Just in case you needed yet another reason to get out and vote on November 7 ... )

You've probably seen the television commercials the telcos have released in the past few weeks: A 'silicon valley billionaire' falls into a bed of money Scrooge McDuck-style, while a menacing voice-over informs us that Network Neutrality is actually an evil plot to make the consumer pay silicon valley more for internet services.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, not only is Network Neutrality cheaper for the consumer, it's good for democracy itself. If the telecoms are allowed instead to assign priority to packets, then they will also have the ability to decide priority for information itself. Only those who can afford to pay will have a voice online.

Oddly, this debate comes at the very time when online media is naturally decentralizing and giving a stronger voice to the average citizen. 2.5 million bands have posted their music on MySpace. There are 60,000 audio and video podcasts in production. Millions of videos have been posted to YouTube, Revver and other sites. Authors publish books as print-on-demand offerings via sites like Lulu.com. Still others publish audiobook podcasts via Podiobooks.com.

The old chokeholds on media distribution are rapidly being demolished. And we no longer need the media heavily marketed to find it: Sites like PopCurrent.com democratize the process of discovering the 'good stuff' in this ever-growing pile of citizen-produced video, music, talk, books and images by harnessing the power of the hive mind to identify rising stars. (Full disclosure: PopCurrent is my own website).

But without Network Neutrality, this hive mind is hampered, censored, tiered. It ceases to function efficiently. And some information becomes more easily available than other information.

For example, take this very debate about Network Neutrality. If networks were not neutral, the telecoms could take a video podcast in favor of Network Neutrality and assign it a low priority, making it slow and jerky, or even effectively unavailable. They could conversely make sure the very ad mentioned in the beginning of this post is given the highest packet priority -- after all, you want to make sure the propaganda that benefits you gets full play!

You see? If information is not all treated equally at the network level, it is possible to use your control of bits and bytes flowing by to unduly influence opinion. And that, my friends, is bad for democracy. Keep the bits and bytes neutral so democracy can work its magic online -- and off.