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Average Joe And Saving The Internet

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-04-24

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Pull Average Joe to the side (the next time you see him at the pub or wherever Joe haunts these days) and float the phrase "Network Neutrality" by him; if for nothing else, to watch the blankness wash over him. He has little use for the phrase, though it has the potential to affect him greatly.

For Joe, the Internet is still largely an abstract. He likes email and Google, and the few useful and entertaining websites he visits. But he couldn't tell you how or why it works the way it does, nor does he really care.

He is even surprised to learn that the telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon do not already control it. There is broadband access at home only because his daughter demanded it, and he went through BellSouth (which isn't even BellSouth anymore, he thinks) to get it.

Getting the word out to Joe about the heated battle in Congress over Net Neutrality is what Vonage cofounder, Jeff Pulver aims to do. Last week, Pulver launched a contest to attract viral video submission from supporters of the initiative for use in a campaign called "Save The Internet.com Coalition," spearheaded by Free Press, a national, nonpartisan group focused on media reform and Internet policy issues.

Well, it's actually about the getting the word out to the U.S. government, but Joe may need to hear it, too.

"We need to harness your individual genius and our collective genius…to save the Internet," writes Pulver on his weblog. "Send us short, creative ideas -- videos, flash ads, other Internet-based gimmicks -- that you think might effectively communicate to government that they must write rules to enable us the Internet innovators to transform the Internet and communications experience."

The coalition has already attracted a diverse list of supporters who, at any other time on any other issue, would be at one another's jugulars. The loudest voice comes from Vinton Cerf, one of the "fathers of the Internet" and Google's Chief Internet Evangelist, propped up by a coalition that includes: Gun Owners of America, MoveOn.org, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Glenn Reynolds (aka libertarianblogger Instapundit), American Library Association, Afro-Netizen.com, the Consumer Federation of America, the Consumers Union, and Public Knowledge.

"The diversity of this coalition underscores the importance of this issue," said Cerf. "When the Internet started, you didn't have to get permission to start companies. You just got on the Net and started your idea."

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce votes this week on telecom legislation that would end any Net Neutrality provisions. The "Markey Amendment" to this bill would preserve the Internet as it is today, warns MoveOn.org.

If companies like Verizon an AT&T have their way, they will create a two-tiered Internet where subscribers, content providers (and probably subscribers again) could be charged for access to and delivery of premium content that at one time was paid for by broadband subscriber fees alone.

It is possible then, that only the largest companies with the largest budgets will be able to afford delivery of premium content, while deepening the digital divide as the average consumer is left with the Internet scraps he can afford (and used to get for free). Detractors say an end to Net Neutrality will end innovation and block access to Web, while giving telecoms the ability to censor websites and block or degrade competing web services.

"I've worked with big telecom workers, good people, and they've warned me that their companies would use the ability to discriminate to hurt the little guys. They will use their power to hurt the little guys, and I don't think that should happen," said Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist. "If there was no Net Neutrality, this could have been a big problem for craigslist when we started. And would be a problem for small businesses that innovate online."

It is interesting to note that a voice equally (or more so) as loud comes from an opposition much smaller in number, but with bottomless pockets and a history of influence in Congress - a smaller voice, bellowing through receivers pre-tuned to them, representing the only body that will benefit from its stereophonic pleas.

Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on how you look at it), libertarian organization Cato Institute has taken the side of the telecom giants.

"Such rhetoric and calls for preemptive regulation are unjustified," opines Cato's Adam D. Thierer. "There is no evidence that broadband operators are unfairly blocking access to websites or online services today, and there is no reason to expect them to do so in the future."

But it does seem to have happened in Canada

For many, it's not so much how things have been, but how things might (very possibly) be. It's a guarantee that the SaveTheInternet.com Coalition wants, even if they risk the slippery slope.

"The future of the free, open and innovative Internet we have all enjoyed through the years is not guaranteed," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a public interest group working on technology and intellectual property issues. "If the bill before the House Commerce Committee gives control of the Internet to the telephone and cable companies, the Internet we have come to appreciate could well cease to exist, and it will be almost impossible to get it back."

The coalition is showing that political affiliation matters little in this battle. Words like "conservative" and "liberal" have been equally thrown to label my own sentiments, though an astute observer may better tag me as a John Stuart Mill utilitarianist with Thomas Paine libertarian tendencies. The problem, though, with ascribing wholly to an individual philosophy, is that you miss the beauty of others - and a united front is striking in this day in age.

If one were to believe that Net Neutrality fears were perched precariously on the slippery slope without evidence of the intent of wrong-doing by the telecoms, they may be well served to ask Average Joe if he's ever been gouged them. My bet is he will say he has, in a nickel-and-dime kind of way.

On the issue of whether we are to trust the government or trust the corporation, you may be hard pressed to find a line of demarcation. As the President asserts that "America is addicted to oil," we should note that America is addicted to oil in the same way a crack baby is addicted to crack. It is certainly true, but what alternatives were presented us?

Average Joe can certainly relate to that, and is losing trust by the day that either the government or the corporation is looking out for him. In fact, they seem in cahoots to empty his bank account and protect each other from all competition. He is faced with the question:

"Do I really want to deliver my every day life into the hands of another giant? Exxon broke my heart; what of AT&T?"


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About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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