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Patrick Tierney (M, 33)
Princeton, US
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    The Internet is not yours.
    Part I

    The internet is not yours, it never was yours. I'm sorry, it just isn't. It is owned by large telecommunication companies that decide who does what with their infrastructure. Like any public infrastructure, users have to adhere to certain rules for the whole thing to function. The problem is it is easy to think that while spending time on the Internet you have the same rights as in a cafe or worse yet your home. After all, this is where all your massages are, your documents, you meet friends here and form communities. These are all actions that have traditionally been protected by free speech and privacy laws, laws held paramount in democratic societies.

    Let me show you a sample of your "Acceptable Use Policy". This is important because the AUP determines what you can and cannot do on the internet:

    1. AT&T respects freedom of expression and believes it is a foundation of our free society to express differing points of view. AT&T will not terminate, disconnect or suspend service because of the views you or we express on public policy matters, political issues or political campaigns.
    believes in

    Thank you for granting me that right — I didn't know it was ever in question. However...

    2. Customer is prohibited from engaging in any other activity, whether legal or not, that AT&T determines in its sole discretion, to be harmful to its subscribers, operations, network(s). (emphasis added)

    Well that's pretty vague. Additionally ...

    3. AT&T IP Services shall not be used to host, post, transmit, or re-transmit any content or material that is threatening, harassing, obscene, indecent, hateful, malicious, racist, fraudulent, deceptive, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, abusive, inflammatory, or otherwise harmful or offensive to third parties, treasonous, excessively violent or promotes the use of violence, or provides instruction, information or assistance in causing or carrying out violence against any government, organization, group or individual, or provides guidance, information or assistance with respect to causing damage or security breaches to AT&T's network or to the network of any other IP Service provider.

    Wow, that's so vague I might as well not post anything here... So while AT&T asserts (1), it can use any combination the items in (2) and (3) to overturn (1) at any time. Better yet, an ISP can just remove clause (1) if they so please. Hey, that's not right you say. OK, go make your own internet.

    See, the internet as a cafe or home simply doesn't hold true. This new digital space of the internet has no bill of rights — you are not guaranteed anything. This shouldn't be surprising: the data infrastructure is privately owned. You're living on Main Street, Disneyland, not Main Street, USA. What's that? you can just encrypt your data or use Tor? Sorry, the telecoms can ban that too under (2) or (3). You signed away all your rights the moment you turned on your modem. Didn't you notice?

    Part II

    Case Study 1: ARPANet
    It's commonly believed that the ARPANet in the genesis of our modern day internet. It was the testing ground of a large-scale, packet switched network. It was however a closed network leased from BBN and Raytheon (they tried several times to give AT&T a monopoly, but AT&T turned them down and continued developing its own tools and services for its rival ARPANet). While the ARPANet was the first example of a network that resembles our current internet, it wasn't the the only computer network that emerged. Telenet, Usenet, ClarkNet, RCCNet, SATNet, etc (Compuserve even had their own network you could buy into). The Internet, by definition, was the coming together of these many networks, united by a single protocol. One thing also remained true during the rise of the internet: TCP/IP had to go through the networks of big companies who were stringing copper long before Len Kleinrock was born.

    Case Study 2: BBS's
    The TCP/IP networks mentioned above were primarily used for file transfer and email. Alternate networks emerged which allowed for a more communal environment. BBS's were one of these. A BBS was a computer server that an individual set up allowing other computers to connect over a phone based modem and leave a message. In essence it allowed anyone to create their own worldwide message board system without going through an ISP or large scale network. While most BBS's were used for benign massaging, some BBS's had a instructions for overthrowing the government, hacking, bomb making, theft, and hand to hand combat. These BBS's, examples of freedom of speech unbound by time or location, would be illegal on today's internet. Why? Because the ISPs say so.

    Case Study 3: Burning man
    Yes, it's that time of year again, and say what you will about the event in it's current state, Burning Man started out as an experiment with a fascinating goal: what happens when a couple thousand people try to create their own city in the middle of the desert? Conclusion: it's fun until people sleeping in tents get run over by inebriated drivers, when the careless start destroying the natural environment, when "liability" becomes a major concern. At that point communal, bottom up organization gives way to a top down structure. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, per say, but who decides the rules?

    Part III

    There is hope. Net neutrality is trying to take back control of the internet from the telecoms, though they are fighting this very hard.

    Most of you should be aware that all the old television frequencies will soon be up for auction. Verizon has already won a large chunk, publicly stating that they planned on reaming the American people with their new toy. Luckily a federal court and the FCC said that wasn't cool (Gooo team!).

    There's still a lot more spectrum left, and no one knows who will get it.

    The point though is that unless we the internet users start looking up from ceiling cat, (insert name here)-tube, and social networks to fight the big picture, the internet might have the same fate as the TV spectrum, owned by a few corporations who decide what belongs on their network. The wireless Internet spectrum cannot suffer the same fate, because there will be no going back.

    We have a chance to make that second digital space we all want, one that's in the public domain (GNU internet?), with a bill of rights that we, the Internet users decided. Remember, this is our space, because we live here.

    Sat, Jul 19, 2008  Permanent link
    Categories: computers, internet
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