THE BLOG
07/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Netroots Should Tend To The Net's Roots

Over the next couple of days, thousands of online activists will gather in Austin for the Netroots Nation conference. There are scheduled caucuses for Open Left Readers and Geeks and Texans and Moms, and sessions on how to use social networking tools in campaigns. There are panels on how the Internet could be used for transparency in government, how the Internet has affected campaigns and lobbying, to discussions of science, space and food policy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be there, as will Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), who the Netroots helped propel to victory, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

All of the speeches and 99.99% of the panels and discussions will be about how to the Internet is being used, and should be used. There's nothing wrong with that. It's fabulous that activists want to make the most out of the online medium. The equivalent in the physical world, as opposed to the "virtual" world, would be sessions on constructing buildings, or making better cars using the newest and best materials and techniques.

And yet, with about 150 meetings of caucuses and panels and groups, to say nothing of the millions of side conversation and bar-room discussions that will take over the next three-and-a-half days, something is all but missing but for one panel on the last full day of the conference. In the real world, no discussion of construction would be complete without factoring in "green" buildings. No discussion of cars would be complete without figuring in fuel economy and pollution control. In the same theme, no discussion of the Internet should be complete without a discussion of preserving and protecting the online environment. Call it a "Net's Roots" movement (or something more clever if a name springs to mind).

Make no mistake. The Net's Roots are under as much stress and attack as is the real-world environment. The glaciers cracking and the ozone layer growing and temperatures rising in the real world all have their equivalent in the online environment. The big telecom and cable companies want to control which data is favored to go faster, and which would go slower, based, of course, upon how much money they are paid by the sponsors of any particular Web site or service. That control would turn the original concept of the Internet -- in which the user is in control of where he or she goes and does online -- upside down.

They want to use their technology to spy on users' data. In some cases, it may be for the benefit of advertisers who employ companies like NebuAd to sift through information in the middle of the data stream, without the knowledge or consent of the people whose information it is. In other cases, it may be to do the bidding of the big entertainment companies, who want the Internet Service Providers to filter everyone's packets looking for copyrighted material -- even copyrighted material that can be used legally without permission of the owners. (We won't even get into the spying for the government. After all, the telecom companies now have immunity from prosecution.)

In the name of "network management," some companies want to throttle down the use of legal applications, like BitTorrent which may, coincidentally, provide competition in entertainment programming. They want to impose usage caps across the board on all customers which would stifle innovation and curb the use of video (there's that anti-competitive meme again) without actually solving the problem of the so-called "bandwidth hogs." The way caps are being discussed now, they would only lead to higher prices and less usage for an industry that already charges more for less than most broadband providers around the world. Parts of our broadband industry may be the only sector in the world that wants to cut down the amount of its product it wants customers to use.

If we want to grow our garden, then we also have to be concerned about a broadband policy that is based on the assumption that two or three competitors are adequate for a vibrant, consumer-driven market. Clearly, that isn't the case, as regulatory policies abroad clearly show. Those policies, which allow competitors to buy access to the lines of existing telecom companies, are the same policies we once had but jettisoned. Now the vibrant markets are overseas, but not here.

The Netroots Nation conference is a meeting of progressives, but the issue of protecting the Net's Roots shouldn't be a partisan one. Conservatives have as much at stake, as they use the online environment also. Unfortunately, only a very few from that side of the aisle, prominently the Christian Coalition, are sufficiently enlightened to see the threat and to be concerned about it. Most of the rest are stuck in the thrall of corporate control.

Those of us in Washington, like the day-job employer Public Knowledge, and other groups and companies, are working on it from here. We may get some help from the Federal Communications Commission in the next couple of weeks over the Comcast throttling issue. There may some momentum for Congress to act next year if there's a larger Democratic majority (of Democrats not controlled by telephone or cable companies, that is) and some enlightened Republicans.

What we do here is dwarfed by the energy the Netroots have for all manner of issues and causes. Protecting the Internet environment should be one of those causes in which everyone who is active online should devote some attention and time and creativity and energy. Just as air and water become polluted, so will the Internet be corrupted unless everyone with an interest in keeping the online world open and free of discrimination chips in to help.