Internet proposal raises fears

A couple of weeks ago
, two elephants — Google and Verizon — came together to propose a vision for
the Internet that represented what many characterize as a retreat by Google
from its past strict adherence to so-called net neutrality. The phrase net neutrality,
really more of a rallying cry than a technical term, describes a policy that
would prohibit Internet service providers from exploiting their role in
delivering information to favour their own content, or the content of the
highest bidders.

The two companies
were presumed to be on opposite sides of this issue since Google bases its
business on an open Internet and Verizon, among other things, sells access to
the Internet. For the sake of getting commitments from Verizon to support a
“neutral” Internet delivered on hard wires, Google wrote on one of its blogs,
it agreed to some exceptions: no neutrality for the Internet delivered
wirelessly and for “additional, differentiated” online services.

But how do things
look from the perspective of the grass? Is there reason to worry when two
elephants join tails?

Far below Google and
Verizon or Facebook and AT&T on the information network are the small,
independent Internet service providers like Riseup.net, a nonprofit collective
based in Seattle that hosts e-mail and e-mail lists. As one link in the chain
of the Internet, hosts like Riseup already operate at the mercy of the
corporations that do most of the moving of packets of information across the
Internet.

Created in 2000 by
anti-globalization advocates, Riseup “started with a handful of accounts on a
few donated PCs stashed in someone’s basement,” Devin Theriot-Orr, an
immigration lawyer who is also part of the core group of a dozen or so who run
the site, wrote in an e-mail. “Ten years later, we are still volunteer-driven
and have a large user base from all over the world.”

With Riseup’s
connections to political groups, you may think it is most concerned that a
non-neutral Internet would be a threat to its often politicized communications;
that, in essence, a non-neutral carrier could punish political groups it
disagreed with.

But both Mr. Saxon
and Mr. Theriot-Orr said their bigger fear was the additional level of
monitoring — they call it surveillance — that an Internet with built-in
non-neutrality would require: monitoring so that packets of information can be
routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged.

Yes, even in these
politicized times, Internet neutrality has generally been viewed on commercial
terms, not political ones. And the surveillance that worries the members of the
Riseup collective is now being used to sell products — and help defray the
costs of building the Internet’s infrastructure, their supporters would quickly
point out.

Without neutrality,
say advocates of online privacy, the Internet becomes more like a mall — where
users are from the start viewed as consumers — and less like a public square.
“The people who are pushing for a nonneutral world are pushing it for monetary
purposes,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, which advocates for privacy online.

“Interfering with
packets,” she said, echoing Mr. Saxon’s concerns, “creates the space for this
kind of surveillance.”

The fact is that
monitoring Internet users is increasingly crucial to online business — whether
by e-commerce sites that recommend purchases or by search engines that remember
what you looked for in the past to improve results or by e-mail services that
place ads based on words in the messages.

For a recent series
in The Wall Street Journal about how Web sites track their visitors, called
“What They Know,” The Journal studied the top 50 Web sites in the United States
to see how many tools they embedded in visitors’ computers. Many use more than
100 such tools; only Wikipedia had none.

Eben Moglen, a
professor at Columbia Law School who is an advocate for free software and
online privacy, sees frameworks like the one proposed by Google and Verizon as
emphasizing the business of the Internet at the expense of the privacy of the
Internet.

“As the network does
more to adapt to what commerce needs, it becomes more and more about knowing
what’s inside the head of the user, about what the person is doing and buying,”
he said.

Rather than a neutral
Internet — with its implied competition between rival businesses — the people
at Riseup would seem to be wishing for a “plain” Internet that would merely
facilitate communication and connections, and minimize the role of commerce.

Mr. Saxon wrote in an
e-mail that it would even be worth a fee: “If people paid for what they use,
rather than having their behaviour tracked and monetized to pay for ‘free’
services, then the small providers stand more of a chance.”

Recalling Riseup’s
start in an interview, Mr. Saxon went back to 2000. “Free e-mail that was
available had a tag line on the bottom,” he said. “People would sign up on
Hotmail to organize the vegan potluck dinner and the ad would say ‘win free
steaks.’ ”

The fact is that
monitoring Internet users is increasingly crucial to online business — whether
by e-commerce sites that recommend purchases or by search engines that remember
what you looked for in the past to improve results or by e-mail services that
place ads based on words in the messages.

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