More than a decade ago, President Clinton pledged that every person in America would soon be able to go online "to order up every movie ever produced or every symphony ever created in a minute's time."
Well, we're already well into the next millennium and less than one out of every 10 Americans has a connection capable of those speeds. And it's not just the speed of our connection that's fallen behind. When we can get online in the United States, a free and open Internet is no longer guaranteed.
2009 was a year when the openness of the Internet was debated every where from Obama's White House to your house. As all media -- including TV, radio, newspapers and books -- converge via a digital connection, the controversial issue of who ultimately controls your clicks has taken center stage. Much will be decided in 2010, and 2009 helped set the stage.
The Top 10 Open Internet Moments of 2009 (in no particular order):
Stimulus Plan Embraces Access and Openness
In February, Congress passed a stimulus package including $7.2 billion to help get fast and open Internet to the nearly 40 percent of American homes that don't have it. Buried deep in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is a line that brought a scowl to the faces of phone and cable industry lobbyists. It required that the billions of federal dollars directed to connect more Americans be spent on services that meet "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations." That means that stimulus money -- your money -- cannot be used by powerful Internet service providers to "manage," throttle or re-route you whenever you traverse the Web.
The FCC Pushes for Net Neutrality
Delivering on promises his boss made on the campaign trail, newly appointed Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski announced plans for the agency to make Net Neutrality the rule -- giving teeth to efforts to protect the Internet's fundamental openness. The mere suggestion of a rule put the open Internet foes at AT&T, Verizon and Comcast into overdrive. In 2009, their lobbyists flooded lawmakers, regulators and the press with phony claims about the "unintended consequences" of FCC action. Listening to the lobbyists, one might think Net Neutrality was some radically new concoction. Yet it was baked into the Internet's original design by founders like Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Vinton Cerf, to ensure that open networks could foster growth, participation and new ideas on a level playing field. In 2010, The FCC must pass a rule that holds strong to this standard.
Whose 'Internet Freedom' Is it?
Throughout the year Members of Congress engaged in rhetorical jousting over control of a term: "Internet Freedom." Representatives Ed Markey and Anna Eshoo launched the first salvo in July, introducing the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009." If passed, the Act would make Net Neutrality the standard, locking in the network's greatest strength: its ability to give everyone a chance to share ideas online without having to gain permission from their ISP. Powerful phone and cable lobbyists began to call in favors on Capitol Hill, turning to "the Maverick" himself to stake their own claim to the frame. Sen. John McCain answered the call, introducing the "Internet Freedom Act," a bill that would stop all FCC efforts to have a public discussion about Net Neutrality. Thanks to the transparency champions at Sunlight Foundation, we learned that McCain had numerous reasons for pushing his version of Internet Freedom: $894,379 to be exact.
Twitter Empowers Protesters. DPI Endangers Them.
Over the summer, Twitter turned into a powerful engine of social justice, as protesters in Iran took to the streets and the Internet to contest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election. Western journalists were summarily escorted out of the country. Iranian Web activists filled the void, transmitting a stream of Twitter messages and YouTube videos, to let the world bear witness to the horrors unfolding on Tehran's streets. In that moment, the power of open social networks seemed undisputed. But it's a sword that cut both ways: The tools that connect, organize and empower people can also be used to hunt them down. The companies that profited from sales of this Web-spying technology to Iran (notably Nokia-Siemens) found themselves in the crosshairs of human rights advocates, as Iran's government began tracking Web transmissions to locate and imprison protesters. This technology -- insidiously dubbed "Deep Packet Inspection," or DPI -- became a concern back home. It has been widely deployed by ISPs across the country for commercial purposes, but in the wrong hands it can become a dangerous tool for a new era of political repression.
Obama White House Goes 2.0
Obama put open technology to work during his White House run, notably relying on social networks that gave users more control over the campaign message. On the day they settled in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Obama's open government team began deploying open-source Drupal systems on all of its sites and opening them up to user comments, polling and feedback. They're now betting on the idea that the White House's commitment to open, transparent and participatory governance will filter outward through all executive agencies and departments and beyond. (White House bloggers themselves became targets on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" after their transparency drive went too far for some, colliding with the secrecy-minded bureaucrats at the NSA).
The Breaching of the Walled Garden
Mobile phone users had been conditioned to accept network blockades, opaque pricing plans and device locks as a natural feature of the wireless landscape. But that changed in 2007 when millions got a stunning glimpse of the new iPhone. It and the other "smart phones" that followed seemed to offer a seamless connection to the Internet. Consumers began to wonder why connecting to the Web via their handheld device should be any different than connecting via a laptop or desktop computer. The simple answer is that it shouldn't. But don't tell that to the cartel of carriers that in 2009 used their lobbyists to stall efforts at the FCC to apply Net Neutrality protections to both wired and wireless connections. Google upped the ante in December, confirming rumors of its plan to release the Nexus One, an unlocked, open-source phone that is a direct challenge to AT&T and Apples' mantra: to own the consumers, you must control their devices.
Open Source Operating Systems May Get Lost in the Cloud
Over the fall, Google released its latest version of the Chrome operating system to the open-source community. Chrome OS runs only Web-based applications, marking a major shift toward Web services, software and applications and away from hard drives weighted down with proprietary software. (Microsoft be warned.) The increased adoption of 'net-centric" computing could lead to a tipping point where the majority of users tap into the Web for virtually all their software needs. But it's a vision of the future that may turn less rosy if we lose control over access to the cloud's distributed architecture. Opening Chrome OS to developers around the world is a good sign, but cloud computing itself is fraught with obstacles to openness -- even in cases where everyone gets to tinker with the code. "A market that evolves toward a cloud-based infrastructure, gives even more power to the Internet service providers who control access to the cloud," warns Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. "This raises all sorts of market power concerns should ISPs decide to discriminate in favor of some companies and applications in the cloud and slow or filter access to others."
A New Battle for Old Spectrum
2008 ended in a victory for open network advocates when the FCC decided to open up unused chunks of the television spectrum for high-speed Internet services. But that decision on "White Spaces" marked a fundamental shift in how we think about public airwaves -- and caused a rift between the titans of old media (with their cigar-chomping lobbyists at the NAB) and an eccentric coalition of open network proponents, consumer rights advocates and Internet and electronic device companies. In the fall of 2009, the FCC floated the idea of taking back some more of the spectrum now occupied by broadcasters. But this only works for openness if the FCC makes the new spectrum available for unlicensed use and increased competition. Simply handing it to incumbent carriers like AT&T and Verizon is not the solution. The mere suggestion itself triggered the hoarding reflex of spectrum's old guard, who still view the media as a river that flows one way -- from them to you.
Internet Video vs. the Cable Guy
How much control should television viewers be given over what, where, when and how they watch video? It's not a question that's new to media debates, but it took on new meaning in 2009 as more and more high-speed Americans sought to "cut the cord" connecting their TV sets to cable to view video via the Internet instead. Right now, this trend is limited to "early adopters," but if it plays out in both the marketplace and at the FCC, it could radically change the television world as we have come to know it, removing the cable company standing between video content and its audience. "Although not everyone would abandon their cable or satellite subscription," writes The Los Angeles Times' David Lazarus, "it's not hard to imagine more than a few people realizing they can suddenly make do with Internet access alone, eliminating the video portion of monthly telecom bills." Comcast's controversial plan to merge with NBC Universal (marrying video distribution and Internet access with video production) implies that cable giants aren't going to accept this shift without a fight.
National Broadband Plan: Under Construction
It turns out that the United States was the only developed nation without a national strategy to get affordable and fast broadband services into the hands of its citizenry. That status changed with the stimulus package, which tasked the FCC with crafting a national blueprint for getting everybody connected. While the plan isn't due to be delivered to Congress until February, the debate over the shape of the next generation Internet has been furious. Broadband is now an essential service like water, electricity and the telephone, argue public interest advocates (including my organization Free Press). It is essential infrastructure for the 21st century. While the phone and cable duopoly that controls more than 97 percent of fixed broadband home connections would rather see it as a private commodity, to be rationed and controlled in ways that maximize earnings. Whether openness, consumer choice and market competition are fostered by the plan still remains to be seen. We'll know more when it's unveiled to the world in 2010.