CYOAW II: Net neutrality

Yes, kids it’s Choose Your Own Adventure Week, where I blog about the topics YOU choose. Today’s topic, net neutrality, comes from pal and avid Pj supporter Robert Ludwick, who suggested a number of themes on Twitter (you should do the same).

For those who don’t know, net neutrality is basically a principle advocating unrestricted access to the World Wide Web by network access providers. (Yes, I’ve boiled it down very simply. The complicated version is one Google search away.) It’s basically the very opposite of what goes on in places like China, for example, where access to content the government there doesn’t want you to see is blocked left and right.

In the United States, the issue tends to be less an issue of government censorship than it is of commercial interests (though the former isn’t unthinkable). Say you get your broadband connection through Time Warner Cable, and say TWC doesn’t want you to be able to view the website or ads for its competitor, Comcast. Well, maybe while accessing the internet using TWC’s connection, access to Comcast’s website is blocked. (Again, oversimplified, but you get the idea.)

Another recent issue pertains to mobile device access to the internet, and mobile providers considering tiered access plans where you’d have to pay more for less restricted access (and those paying less may get “choked off” when trying to stream audio, video and other bandwidth-intensive content).

While Congress has unsuccessfully passed any sort of comprehensive net neutrality legislation, the FCC recently did pass rules that prevent (for the time being) cable and telephone service providers from preventing access to specific websites or competitors, but do allow for tiered internet access plans.

But what you really want to know is, “Pj, where do you stand? You’re a big ol’ bleeding heart liberal socialist, everything should be free and equal, right?”

Yes and no.

We’ve become very accustomed to the internet being “free,” whether in accessing content, or sharing content. Even though most people pay a price to access the internet, they still expect that access to be free and unhindered, except by their own desire (by using a content filter or other self-policing). But the fact is, you are almost always viewing the web through a window opened by one third-party entity or another, whether it’s your ISP, your employer or a public wi-fi connection. Accessing the internet isn’t like taking a leisurely swim into an endless stream. It’s more like paying a boat captain to take you on a cruise down the river. He controls the speed of the boat, and if someone else on the boat is blocking your view of the river, oh well, they paid too. Heck, maybe they paid more to get a better view. Either way, you can’t get on the river without paying the captain — and then it’s the captain’s rules when you’re on his boat.

Now, yes, this is why we have government regulation. This is why the FCC has rules. And as a good little socialist, I believe these rules (just like laws and taxes and other government-y stuff) help serve the common good, representing the will of the little man where he might otherwise be powerless to do so.

But as a free-market capitalist (oh, I am a man of contradictions), I’m on the fence. I honestly think it’s fine for companies to charge different rates for different levels of speed/access — so long as that tiered system is based on general usage and not specific content types. After all, if the captain has to buy a bigger, newer boat to accommodate the increased demand for river access, he’s gotta pay for it somehow, right? I left AT&T’s mobile service for Verizon right before they announced their move to tiered data access plans, but Verizon’s own similar approach is imminent, and honestly, I’m sure I’ll still shell out whatever amount of cash for a top-tier, unlimited data package. That’s my CHOICE as a consumer.

Now, on the flip side, if Verizon wanted to block my access to Pandora, for example, over some other streaming radio service it might be partnering with, well, yeah, I’d be a bit teed-off about that. But, again, as a consumer, I can make the choice not to use Verizon, and move to another provider that won’t restrict my access as such.

“But, Pj, what if ALL providers restricted your access to the web in some way or another?”

Well, then, that’s where I’d depend on the legislators I elected and the agencies under their purview (such as the FCC) to fight, as some of them have (Al Gore, where are you?), to uphold network neutrality. But it’s a sticky subject. We say we don’t want the government dictating what individuals or businesses can and can’t do, and yet, we want them there when we’re feeling cheated or abused. We want clean drinking water. We want green forests, white beaches and bald eagles flying free. And the more libertarian-minded friends of mine believe left to their own devices, for-profit corporations will self-police and do the right thing, eventually. But I’m pretty sure left without regulation, you’d quickly be seeing unencumbered access to your favorite website, messaging service or streaming media disappear.

So where do I stand on net neutrality?

Hate the player, not the game.

Nope, I have no idea what that means either. I have no answers — I’m just adding my few kilobytes to the noise.

OK, folks! Remember to leave your Choose Your Own Adventure Week topic suggestions in the comments below, e-mail me, or hit me on the Twitterz!

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