Famed science fiction author CM Kornbluth wrote one of his most famous stories, The Marching Morons, in 1951, as a commentary about both the general populace (and its collective lack of intelligence) and the ruling elite and THEIR collective lack of intelligence. If you have never read it, you’re missing out on one of the seminal works of the era, but I find that over time it also seems to be a remarkably prescient look at the US leadership.
This week, the US House of Representatives, largely at the request of a number of well-heeled telco and cable company lobbyists, gutted the Net Neutrality provisions of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE), putting into place instead provisions that enshrined the notion that service providers can charge different rates for different kinds and sizes of packets moving across networks.
This was in opposition to the Internet Freedom and Non-Discrimination Act of 2006 being sponsored by Senators John Conyers and Jim Sensenbrenner, which stated that it is a violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act for broadband providers to discriminate against any web traffic, refuse to connect to other providers, block or impair specific (legal) content and says if a broadband provider gives priority to a particular type of traffic, it must give priority to all traffic of that type:
If you do not have Net Neutrality, then what this means is simple - a service provider can choose to provide premium services to only those people who have paid for it, meaning that they not only get the best service (highest transmission of information) but can also get content that is effectively outside of the domain of the rest of the Internet. This is the cable TV model, where your access to the Internet is largely defined by whether you have the Bronze or Platinum packages.
If this was in fact a private service, an AOL or MSN, this would be about par for the course - in theory, the revenue from subscribers pays for speciality services and better “programming”. In practice, however, what has happened has been that such services have been hemmoraging members for years as most of the revenue ends up not in better quality content or services (always a debatable point anyway) but in investors’ dividend checks.
What makes this even more egregious, however, is that this is the Internet that is being partitioned, and it is being partitioned not by the web site owners (the REAL producers) but rather by the large ISPs. If you’re a “favored” site owner willing to potentially pay hefty fines, your content can get where it needs to go across the best networks - if you are a small company or an individual, your content gets routed out of the premium networks, across slower and less favored connections, which are of course also going to be heavily hit because this is where everyone else who hasn’t ponied up will end up.
The COPE Bill also puts into these same ISP hands the ability to effectively route certain packets to null-space - they may be sent, but they will never get anywhere. The ISPs can in effect make certain parts of the Internet dark, even if the material in question does not originate on their networks. There have already been a few fairly significant attempts at this, from Telus blocking all packets favorable to the Telecommunication Workers Union during their strike, and AOL blocking all emails that mentioned www.dearaol.com, a campaign opposing the company’s pay-to-send mail campaign, among a number of others.
Most of these ISPs try to make the case that this is a matter of increasing network efficiency, but given the highly discriminatory nature of the packet routing that this opens up, this argument is fairly spurious. This is a land grab, pure and simple, save that the land involved is in cyberspace, and it is opposed by an extraordinarily broad coalition, from Ebay, Google, Amazon and Microsoft on one hand to MoveOn.org, AARP, the Christian Coalition and the Consumer Federation among many others on the other hand.
The US House of Representatives are sending an ominous and even sad signal to the rest of the world - they are perfectly happy to turn one of the few successful commons efforts on the planet into yet another corporate bonanza in the name of the free market, business efficiency and the increasingly onerous “War on(of) Terrorism”. The irony here is that most large ISPs are by nature monopolistic to begin with, and thus lack the market incentive to allow either competitors or opposing political interests from utilizing their networks.
There has been, in the past decade or so, a steady flight of biotechnology professionals out of the US who found the political and academic environments in the United States to be oppressive. Efforts like this on the part of the Telcos and cable companies are beginning to do the same thing for the information technology professionals. Already, companies that are nervous about the increasingly pervasive control that by the US government and the backbone providers have in this space are moving their data centers off-shore, or are going to countries such as Great Britain that have enshrined Net Neutrality principles in their telecommunications infrastructure.
There is still a chance that the Senate may be able to stop this odious bill from becoming law, though Bush is eager to sign it and no doubt add even more billions to his cronies’ coffers. Moreover, given the apparent close connection between AT&T and other telcos and the NSA, the threat of effective and subtle government censorship lies just over the horizon, censorship that extends far beyond simply blocking content to changing it on the fly, seamlessly and transparently - selective packet filtering makes this far more of a reality, and sends a chilling message to the world one packet at a time. The morons are indeed on the march …
Kurt Cagle lives in Victoria, Canada, and is increasingly convinced that he’s going to stay there.