As reported yesterday on NPR, current efforts by telecom providers threaten access to information and applications on the Internet. Possible changes by the Federal Communications Commission highlight these efforts, which pertain to what power Internet service providers have in restricting access that conflicts with their own interest. What is at stake are the values of opportunity, something that should be examined as the FCC released the proposed regulatory changes for public discussion.
Restricting the use of Internet based alternatives to telephones, such as Skype and other voice over Internet applications, is just one example of what changes could take place. As telephone and cable providers aggressively market often monopolized products, bundling Internet and telephone packages into one service plan, services that are free over the Internet jeopardize telecom companies own share in person to person communications.
When the government shifted control from the public interest to private sector in the mid 1990s, it wasn't clear just how this new form of telecommunication would take. Yet, thought the growth of the Internet, there existed a strong philosophical underpinning around the idea that information and communication should be free and open to the public. The idea of net neutrality is a movement that stays committed to this mission, despite efforts from Internet providers to curtail content and web based applications. Companies like Google and Wikipedia are icons of this open source ideology, presenting both commercial and nonprofit models on how the web can further the common good for all.
The power the Internet has in expanding opportunity stands as one of the greatest paradigms for equality in human history. Since the fifth century Irish monk Kolm Kheli copied sacred text onto his own cow skin, raising one of the first arguments over the freedom of information, advocates for opportunity have seen the freedom of information and speech as a vital means toward equality and justice. Take for instance public education, transparency in government spending, access for people with special needs—all these things take root in the idea that information should be free for all.
In 1994, when I first logged onto the Internet, the freedom of information was almost overwhelming. At the time I was totally blind, a disability that presented great obstacles in the access to information. However, through the power of adaptive speech technologies and initiatives like the Gutenberg Project released a surge of public information, such a large amount that a comparable braille library the size of the Mall of America could not even hold the amount of information.
Over the years, the power of the web as exploded exponentially, offering an equal number of gateways to opportunity. Editorial control usually held by corporate news industries has eroded, putting information in the hands of the people. Networks linked by Internet applications allow underdeveloped neighborhoods—and nations, for that matter—the chance to develop business models that move beyond wealthy suburban office parks. Education is there for anyone, from language learning, to quantum physics. And greater accountability and transparency of government and companies have lifted up democracy to a summit Socrates could have not even fathomed.
All this goes to say that regulation of information and speech, for the self interest of provider profit, goes against the mission the Internet has had since it broke free from the arms of the federal government. What is needed is greater investment in ways that this medium of communication can further expand opportunity, so that the next fifteen years can bring about even greater growth for equality and mobility. Setting up barriers to information has never been a pathway toward progress. The World Wide Web connects us all, and to limit its potential is to warrant the mall intent of a stick wielding malicious child who seeks to tear apart the beauty of a spider's web, the life source for one of nature's smallest creatures.
Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.