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The Right To Browse: The Future of Internet Freedom

Written by: Milly Welsh
Published: December 2010

Right now, as I'm writing this, cyber space enjoys a freedom not seen anywhere else in the world.  On the Internet you can pretty much say anything you want to say and be anyone you want to be.  This autonomy can be extremely enlightening but of course, like anything it also comes with a price.  For example, I could publish a website tomorrow claiming that the moon is made of cheese. Because there are no checks and balances on Internet publishing the same way there is on say, books, I can publish whatever I want, even if it isn't true.  There is also a price in the types of information people have access to. If I were to use a search engine like Google to research a topic of interest, I could just as easily find a website explaining how to build a bomb as I could on how to conserve wildlife in my area.  As citizens of the United States, we except the consequences of freedom provided to us by our constitution.  Yet as the world moves more towards a global society it's important to note that there are vast differences in the ways that countries view individual freedoms and Internet freedom is no exception.  If you are thinking that the Internet will always be as it is now, you may be surprised to learn that there are presently forces in motion that seek to reign in this freedom and potentially change the face of the internet forever.

Although it has gotten little press in the wake of the global recession, the U.N. has started debates around whether or not it should implement some sort of international regulatory system on the Internet.  Countries like China and Iran already have nation wide regulations that restrict their citizen's Internet activity.  Many developing countries like India, Saudi Arabia and Brazil also have an interest in limiting what websites their people can access but don't, at this time, have the means to do so.  Because of this they are asking the U.N. to take a more active roll in policing the Internet.  Of course not everyone is on board, The US, it's western allies and civil society groups to name a few.  They argue that it would simply take too long to make important decisions and slow down innovations.  It's also hard to believe that any sort of consensus on what types of content should be banned could easily be achieved, given that what is deemed “offensive” differs a great deal around the world.

Despite the fact that the US is not on board with U.N. control of the Internet, it does not mean that the future of the Internet is secure domestically.  The recent Comcast court decision earlier this year also has the potential to drastically change the Internet, as it exists today.  The court case revolved around the Federal Communication Commission telling Comcast it could not slow down it's broadband access to a particular file sharing website called BitTorrent.  Comcast did this because on a broadband network, you actually share bandwidth with other customers in your area.  This means that the few people in your neighborhood who constantly download movies or large files can literally use up “all the Internet”, causing slower connection speeds for everyone else on the same line.  Comcast took the F.C.C to court arguing that they did not have the right to tell them how to run their business and won.

As someone who has had a broadband connection and knows how annoying it can be to suddenly loose online access because a neighbor is pirating movies, this all sounds pretty reasonable, until you consider the unintended consequences.   Since the ruling has basically stripped the F.C.C.'s power to enforce “Net Neutrality” (the idea that all internet content should be dealt with equally), what is stopping Internet service providers from going to a “pay to play” system in which websites with a greater means to pay will be able to buy faster connection speeds?  This would give large, more profitable websites an unfair advantage over smaller often, more relevant websites.  Although Comcast has stated that it's not in their best interest to make these sorts of changes, I for one do not have a warm, fuzzy feeling about the implications here. Especially as Comcast merges with NBC, giving them an even larger monopoly on media in this country

Now, to be clear, I don't think that the Internet as we know it is in any immediate danger.  One reason is because the Internet is not easy to control.  WikiLeaks is a great example of this.  Try as they might, the US has not been able to stop access to the whistle blowing website's detrimental content.  I do feel however, that it's important to take note of the events happening around the world, and how it can affect Internet independence in the future.  I personally believe that while there have been some drawbacks to the “free flow of information” provided to us by the Internet, over all it has been a really good thing and restriction to the Internet by government or big corporations would ultimately be very bad for society as it would hinder human advancement. Remember, as people who pay for Internet access we have a voice!  Let's make sure to use it to ensure that future generations don't get stuck with a “watered down” version of the Internet we have today.

Sources and Further Reading

Milly Welsh

Milly Welsh

Milly Welsh is the Priority Learning webmaster and Owner/Operator of Zebralove Web Solutions, a web development company located in southern Maine.
Zebralove Web Solutions