On Internet’s 25th birthday, we’re at risk of losing it

Today, the World Wide Web turns 25 years old. In that time, it has made over the basic human experience more profoundly and rapidly than anything we have ever known. More than just a monolithic revolution, the Internet had been a gateway for large-scale corporate communication and optimization. Later, it became a general consumer’s dream, a wealth of information and amusement. More recently, it has led us to the point where the Internet is accessed more by mobile devices than it is by laptops and desktops.

What if the next step in this information revolution is that the Internet becomes a venture that is corporate-run and world governments’ main tool for spying and control?

The ideal Internet

The thing that made the Internet unique was that limitless nature. Sure, you could go to an encyclopedia to learn about that animal you saw on Animal Planet. But, with the Internet, why not Google it and read 5 encyclopedias, join an enthusiast group on Facebook, and look at funny pictures of it on Reddit? On the side, you’ll research all the charitable groups protecting this new favorite animal and donate to the one(s) that keep it safe.

The reason anyone bothered putting things on the Internet was that it was essentially democratic. If you had the know-how and a minimum of resources to broadcast your webpage, you became part of the Internet. Most of us don’t try to create TV shows because we know that ABC isn’t going to give us the light of day. While the Internet can’t make your content popular, it can you give you your own “channel,” so to speak.

We’ve had all kinds of gifts from this openness. A kid at Harvard brought us Facebook. A revolution in Egypt circumvented censorship with social media. A user-edited encyclopedia became one of the world’s greatest forces for good, surpassing the old gatekeepers in their usefulness, accuracy, and quantity. Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube are all less than 15 years old but have made the concept of leaving expensive cable TV without sacrificing our ability to be entertained into a reality. This just scratches the surface.

So what’s the big deal? 

The ideal of a free and open Internet is being lost. While many have tried to politicize these issues, we will not go there; in fact, we believe a free and open Internet is appealing to people of all political stripes.

The left liberals will be attracted to the diversity of ideas and the ability for people of very low incomes to get access to the Internet. Conservatives will be attracted to the way the Internet can preserve our right to free speech and give them an alternative venue when they feel mainstream media sources don’t make them heard. Libertarians see the concept of “spontaneous order” proven by the Internet, which today still lacks any single organizing or regulating entity.

Preserving our Internet’s freedom doesn’t require a huge paradigm shift, for now. We just need to ban corporate and governmental entities from violating that freedom. While this is a worldwide problem, the USA contains so many of the key players, good and bad, that Americans are uniquely equipped to nip this problem in the bud for the betterment of themselves and all humanity.

A myriad of problems

For instance, we have long consented to the notion that law enforcement can only snoop on our Internet or other computer usage if they obtain a search warrant. This is fair and reflects trust in the justice system; they will make some mistakes, but it is a hard and fast restriction that prevents widespread abuse. However, law enforcement entities like the NSA have moved from spying on suspects to spying to find new suspects. The latest injustice to be revealed is that they either have infected or have plans to infect millions of computers with malware to collect their data.

And while the NSA has rightfully become a punching bag for defenders of Internet freedom, there are all kinds of corporate entities ruining things for us as well. In the USA, the FCC regulates the corporate providers of the Internet. You know them as Comcast, Time Warner, etc. The USA has identified the Internet as an essential communicative service and therefore has supported private companies in creating the necessary infrastructure for delivering it to everyone, even those people who live “in the middle of nowhere.”

This means that to be an Internet service provider (ISP) in the USA is actually a fortunate privilege. ISPs are government-backed companies, since you have to jump through some hoops to compete against them and use these all-important cable lines and related physical structures that are needed to distribute Internet access. These groups are now abusing this privilege. For instance, Comcast and Time Warner, the two largest ISPs, have decided to merge. In an industry with next-to-no competition, the two largest competitors are combining into one.

After neglecting the infrastructure that provides Internet, the USA has some of the slowest Internet speeds in the entire developed world. When groups like Google Fiber come to town and deliver exponentially faster speeds at the same or better prices, demand for that speed increases. Towns of various sizes have decided to create their own fiber Internet and have met opposition from these enormous, claiming it is anti-competitive.

Of course, in places like Austin where Google Fiber is on its way, the major ISPs have scrambled to offer their own super-high speed Internet. It’s almost as if making the government-backed companies compete would lower their prices and increase their service quality. It’s magic.

Likewise, ISPs are now demanding that services like Netflix pay the ISP because customers are using so much data streaming from Netflix. Put another way, the ISPs are being paid by customers to use Netflix while the customers pay Netflix to use Netflix. ISPs want Netflix to pay them – this is the essence of a violation of free Internet. Netflix is paying its own costs to stream movies to customers who are buying Internet access. The ISPs say that, no, Netflix data is different from all the other data on the Internet and that Netflix needs to pay an extra fee if they want to use the same Internet as everybody else.

This isn’t to say that some of the people using the Internet are doing so responsibly. Consumer information is the most valuable commodity on the market right now, and giants like Google and Facebook are frantically collecting it to sell to advertisers. Google now faces legal action for taking information from GMail inboxes. Data collection is the dirty little secret that Internet giants don’t want to talk about; they’re doing just as much as the governments, but you’re consenting to give it to them because they hide the consent in lengthy terms of service agreements.

What can you do?

These problems obviously involve some large actors so it can feel difficult to make a change. Here are some options both to protect yourself and to change the world so that you don’t need such protection.

Take measures to protect your privacy online

There are several things you can do to try to shield yourself from snooping and other nefarious activities. It starts with conscientious browsing and taking a moment to pause and research before accepting terms of service agreements and the like. Further, you should use a service like a VPN to shield your data and location information. Bookmark our “privacy” tag on Getting Things Tech or subscribe to our weekly newsletter to continue receiving updates and tips on how to protect yourself.

Support the Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a non-profit group dedicated to the issues we have talked about in this post. Since they don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak, we find them to be one of the most credible voices. They aren’t trying to win your vote or turn a record profit, they are just trying to protect themselves and you by association. In addition to any donation or activist activity you may be interested in with EFF, they are the premiere source for news and information about these issues.

Join Google’s Take Action initiative

This initiative aims to keep people informed and up-to-date on relevant issues. While we have our qualms about some of Google’s activities, they have done a great job of making their voice heard and taking citizen-friendly positions on legislative issues.

Demand net neutrality from your government

Spying, intentionally slowed internet access, requiring content creators to pay ISPs, and more obvious censorship are all threatening net neutrality. Net neutrality means that the Internet is a neutral place that doesn’t favor any one place over another. A neutral Internet doesn’t allow ISPs to intentionally slow down or block certain web sites. A government cannot forbid you from going to a particular website on a neutral Internet (websites that violate the law are charged with a crime and taken off the Internet, which is different from controlling what Internet users do). Nobody can keep track of what you do on the Internet without your permission. This is a realizable goal.

The founder of the Internet says we should use this day to renew our demand for it:

Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities, and diversity of culture.

Tell your legislators and other public officials your opinion

This might seem cliché, but it really matters. Politicians often pay more attention to the issues that their office receives calls about, since that is the easiest way for them to assess the opinion of their constituents. Call them. Send them emails. If you can, ask questions. You don’t have to be pushy, just ask what their plans are to defend net neutrality. Write down the answer and research it to see if you think it is a good idea. Let them know that you don’t like their plan and why you don’t.

Net neutrality is not an intensely partisan issue like taxation, marriage rights, or anything like that. This means you have a chance to make a difference because politicians aren’t sure what position on net neutrality gets them votes. Let them know that you will only vote for a free and open Internet.

 Featured image: Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web speaks in 2009. (Silvio Tanaka/Flickr)


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