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Net Threats: Internet Openness in Danger

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Reflecting the increasing attention paid to information security by many Americans, Pew Research recently conducted a large study, “Net Threats”, to identify important trends among technology experts’ opinions and predictions regarding the future of digital security. The study targeted thousands of Internet experts to measure their thoughts and concerns about the future of the Internet. Researchers at Pew identified four major themes among responses, and this post will discuss the third theme – Commercial pressures affecting everything from Internet architecture to the flow of information will endanger the open structure of online life.

War ignited this year over Net Neutrality, with government officials, lawmakers, Internet service providers, entertainment providers, and even comedians joining the fray. The conflict stems primarily from the explosion of American data consumption – and who should pay for it. Internet service providers maintain that entertainment providers like Netflix and Google should pay for the rise in Internet traffic, while content providers argue that those costs would undermine the freeness and fairness of the Internet for smaller companies and organizations.

In April, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new rules for the Internet to address the conflict; companies could pay Internet service providers to access digital fast lanes, where data would travel at superior speeds. Consumer advocacy groups immediately objected to his proposal, predicting that the fast lane access fee would simply transfer to consumers. Open Internet advocates objected as well, predicting that the superior quality of content from established online companies would constitute a substantial barrier to entry for Internet startups.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian also objected to Internet fast lanes. The Internet entrepreneur employed Crowdtilt  to successfully fund an anti- fast lane advertising campaign that received a large amount of monetary support and media attention.  With his argument that the Internet is a utility that should remain neutral and unobstructed by fees, his campaign raised over $20,000. John Oliver, a comedian who gained popularity on The Colbert Report, objected to the fast lanes on his own comedic news show Last Week Tonight. Oliver implored viewers to comment on the FCC website to express their opposition to the fast lanes, and the plea was so successful that the FCC website crashed for several hours due to the heightened traffic to the website.

American tech companies have also objected to the proposed rules. In a letter dated May 7th, many large companies – including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix, and Facebook – expressed their opposition to fast lanes. The letter identifies the Internet as “an engine of entrepreneurship and economic growth” and maintains that fast lanes would result in a less competitive, less free Internet. In May, several Senators also wrote Mr. Wheeler a letter opposing his proposal.

Technology experts cited in the Pew study predict that the quality of online information flows will decline because the tendency of governments and corporations to focus on short-term gains will prevent them from creating an environment engendering an Open Internet for the future. The dissenting (and optimistic) respondents of the study maintained that innovation and the continued spread of Internet access will outweigh the threats posed to Net Neutrality by the monetization of Internet activities.

The controversies surrounding fast lanes and Net Neutrality are far from over. Whether commercial pressures will diminish the open structure of online life remains to be seen.

 

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.