Last week I had a conversation with a local business owner in northern Minnesota who provides WiFi internet to her customers. Or, at least, she did. Her internet provider shut down her service because someone, presumably a customer, had illegally downloaded music using the connection. Efforts to implement security to prevent such downloads did not work, so after the second suspension of services she has stopped providing WiFi until they figure something out.
Her efforts to stop the problem seemed to be in good faith, yet her business now operates at a severe disadvantage to larger, corporate-run competitors in her town. I can only assume that these companies either have more expensive software, run their own servers (ignoring such problems), or have some other kind of security arrangement with their provider unavailable to this woman and her small company.
I’m not here to advocate for illegal downloading. Rather, to me, this story seems emblematic of a coming battle that might be over before most people even know it happened.
The citizens of our country now use the internet as part of their everyday lives. People like me now depend on the internet for our work. But control of the internet is only nominally held by the people. Large telecommunication companies, wireless companies and their larger corporate families have vast amounts of day-to-day power in people’s use of the internet. Though regulations exist, there is very little legal protection for people such as the business owner in my example.
Related to this are the larger battles for what’s called “net neutrality,” a big issue in the blogging world my wife and I inhabit. Big companies would like to further monetize the web by creating different tiers for access and dissemination of content, with a pay-to-play system for the fastest, most reliable connections. Opponents of this idea advocate for what’s called “net neutrality,” or the belief that the internet — like radio and TV broadcast frequencies and city cable services — belongs to the people, not the companies that do business over the channel.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a lightning rod for partisan criticism, has probably established himself as the highest-profile official advocating for net neutrality. He’ll have a helluva re-election fight in 2014 and you can bet that internet providers will have some input into the position of his eventual GOP opponent (though, to be fair, they have tremendous input into the Democratic party as well).
Rural internet users like me have few choices for access. We pay $70 a month for satellite access that is often slower than advertised and subject to bandwidth limits that prevent any kind of regular use of streaming media or content production. Upload speeds will prevent me from podcasting from my house until new options arise. No laws are being broken. I agreed to the terms with my provider, because I had no choice. I routinely advocate for public initiatives to expand better, more diverse high speed internet options to rural areas, but do so against the pressure of private companies who would likely acquire the networks anyway.
A major freedom of speech issue is coming, and it won’t come in the form of a law. It will come in the form of a policy for which you must click “I agree” or go back to your printing press.
This belies the notion that government needs to be reined in to preserve liberties. This sentiment is partially misplaced. Yes, our democratically-elected government can impose restrictions, occasionally does, but has not done so lately for largely political reasons. In any event, a system of legal recourse — one part judicial, one part electoral — exists to check this power.
Your government might be able to wrest your beloved incandescent light bulbs from you because of its radical liberal environmentalism (this is sarcasm), but private companies control your access to the electricity needed to run those bulbs and has de facto influence over the materials you choose to read in their lovely white glow. From television programming, to car, home and medical insurance, to access to the internet and wireless networks, private companies exert great control over our lives. That control is expanding, and so-called advocates of “freedom” on issues like guns and hydrofracking are willing conspirators.
Many good corporate citizens exist and you can argue that market forces contain corporations to the public good, but I have no more faith in that notion than a conservative has in the government. Our collective dependence on the strength of blue chip stocks in the portfolios of the middle class prevents the sort of intervention in corporate doings that is a regular part of democratic government. In any event, a rogue corporation with enough capital has all the tools it needs to take over the government in a decade or less.
Fact is, I have faith that my First Amendment rights prevent the U.S. government from shutting down this website so long as I respect the legal rights of others and the criminal code. But my current web host Google reserves the right to shut me down at any time with no recourse. All I have to do is give them a reas….
Just kidding! I love Google. I must love Google. And there you go.