The Internet Defense League (IDL) had its formal coming-out parties the other night. To be sure, the individual members and supporters who would respond to the "Catsignal," like my day-job employer Public Knowledge, would be around anyway. And some members agree on some issues but disagree on others. But the idea of a Defense League creates a little bit of buzz, which is a good thing when the odds against it and its members are so daunting in the face of some impressive arch-enemies. What's a Defense League without those who would take over the world? The Justice League of America (JLA) is constantly on guard against such threats. The Internet Defense League should be as well.
Unfortunately, the IDL's tasks aren't as clear cut as the JLA. Defending the Internet is a complex endeavor depending on, say, whether it's U.S. citizens whose rights are at stake or those who live in other countries. The Defense League may have to play referee to decide the unfortunately critical question of which part of society is the IDL's chief nemesis? Who is the bigger threat as an Internet censor -- government or private industry? (That's a trick question. Answer later.)
Begin with the Washington Post, which was in high editorial dudgeon the other day talking about threats to the Internet. The editorial lauded a culture of "free and open information" as critical, and said, "Censorship is born of fear." Of course, the Post was talking about China, and that country's "vast censorship machine" that keeps its citizens from learning about things like horrific train crashes.
On the other hand, if the private sector in the U.S. has the role of censor, that's OK, just as long as our government, like the Chinese government, isn't involved. The Post on a couple of occasions has come out against common-sense rules to return to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to make sure the high-speed Internet access service is as neutral as the telephone network is. The Post favors a private-sector "commitment to net neutrality accompanied by limited enforcement authority for the FCC in cases where violations are suspected." All we need are some transparency rules to protect that vital, competitive industry and things will be fine, the Post tells us.
In that sense, the Post is on the same page with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who issued their own "Campaign for Liberty Manifesto." This Libertarian/Tea Party duo rail on in the document about "Internet collectivism," an evil philosophy/movement that results in companies being "penalized and intimidated with antitrust actions in the name of 'fairness' and 'competition.'" Goodness, we can't have either of those, can we? They don't like privately owned broadband "subject to collective rule via public ownership and government regulations" either.
The Pauls' manifesto was a response to a Declaration of Internet Freedom circulated by the public interest community. That version of Internet Freedom has such controversial items as: "Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate."
Also on the anti-government bandwagon are a variety of interests who oppose a move by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which has been a largely technical group dealing with international rates and standards, to venture into the area of "Internet governance." There's lots of opposition to ITU stepping in because, in the view of many opponents, approval of some proposals could be seen as giving countries like Russia some cover to conduct crackdowns on human rights and political opponents through restrictions on Internet access or surveillance.
The conference at which the ITU proposals may be discussed isn't happening until December, but Russia decided not to wait. They passed their own law anyway that would allow the government to black list and shut down Web sites for things like child porn (a familiar reason anywhere) but which others say will be used to curb dissent.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski criticized the Russian legislation: "The world's experience with the Internet provides a clear lesson: a free and open Internet promotes economic growth and freedom;restricting the free flow of information is bad for consumers, businesses, and societies." Genachowski is certainly correct. On the other hand, it would have been nice had he been willing to stand up for that principle when it came to the FCC's Open Internet rules. Instead, he gave away the wireless side to the Big Telecom companies for them to pretty much do as they pleased.
But we digress. Assuming that government remains the enemy, then who should be responsible for censoring and distorting the Internet when needed? The private sector, in the form of the Big Telecom/Media cartel, nominates itself.
In its court filing challenging the meager FCC rules, Verizon claimed the right of "editorial discretion" for any content that goes over its networks, just as newspapers decide what to publish. Here's Verizon's argument:
"For example, they [telecom companies] could distinguish their own content from that of other speakers or offer that capability to others. In fact, some types of speech, such as live streaming high-definition video, could benefit from (or may only be available with) differential treatment, such as prioritization. Broadband providers could also give differential pricing or priority access to their over-the-top video services or other applications they provide, or otherwise feature that content."
That sounds easy enough. In fact, for wireless services, it's happening already. Both Verizon and AT&T want to implement plans that would allow deep-pocketed app developers to pay for access to their networks, leaving smaller players out. AT&T is making noises about charging for specific uses, like Apple's FaceTime. Verizon and AT&T wanted to block Google Wallet while developing their own payment app, Isis which, conveniently, has more retail partners than Google has been able to garner. It's not just the big guys. MetroPCS will allow some applications to some customers and not others based on the plans they buy. Let's not get started on the potential abuse from the caps the companies put on the "use" of data from video and other apps.
Why? Because they can. Because those who hate government don't want the government interfering. Because this government won't interfere. Because there's not sufficient competition to curb the anticompetitive urges. Again, that's a failure of government.
Meanwhile, every study, including this latest one, finds Americans paying more for slower Internet access than in comparable places in other countries. Telephone companies want to abandon their once-sacred responsibility of serving everyone at reasonable rates, to be replaced by serving those who can afford unreasonable rates with wireless service.
At the end of the day, the answer to the question of which part of society should censor the Internet is: neither government nor industry. We said it was a trick question. Both institutions can be equally dangerous to Internet users, but only one has the capacity to be a guarantor of rights if it so chooses.
The IDL had better have some spare bulbs for the Catsignal. Looks like they will need plenty.