Network Neutrality Matters to ScholarsHarrison Eiteljorg, II
"Net(work) neutrality" is a term that has been in the press of late, one that seems to have little or nothing to do with the practice of archaeology. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Google search will turn up more occurrences of it than anyone needs (or wants), including a link to Wikipedia's definition: "A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, on the modes of communication allowed, which does not restrict content, sites or platforms, and where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_neutrality; accessed 05/02/08)
Net neutrality comes to us courtesy of the telephone system, which, in turn, received it from the telegraph system. The government required so-called "common carriers" to carry all traffic, no matter the source, so that there could be no moves toward monopoly or restrictions on the flow of information. (Those of us old enough to remember the old AT&T, prior to the 1984 court-mandated changes, may find it amusing to think that anyone thought AT&T did not have a mononpoly.) Since most consumer use of the internet originally traveled on those telephone carriers' lines, neutrality was built into the internet system at the outset.
Recently the carriers -- no longer only telephone companies but cable operators and others -- have argued that these rules governing carriers are obsolete relics from the past and that they should no longer apply. Indeed, it has been argued by some that they do not apply to the cable operators and other non-common-carrier operators now.
The cable operators and others arguing that the rules should be changed have made many arguments, mostly based on the notion that heavy users of internet content -- particularly those who download large (often video) files -- are clogging the system and hurting everyone by their overuse of bandwidth. This seems very reasonable, and the proponents further argue that competition should make network restrictions of little consequence. That, of course, assumes that competition actually exists as to internet access. In fact, however, the telephone companies and cable operators use long-term agreements to lock customers in and face very little competition. Most of us, in the end, have only one telephone company and one cable operator to choose from. There is no true competition when those are the only choices.
The cable operators have an addition problem. It is clear that they will aim to restrict the content, either outright or with pricing schemes designed to push users to access materials they control at the expense of other sources. In one instance, a DSL provider blocked VoIP service (telephone over the internet), for instance; in another a cable operator restricted access to high-definition video materials from sources that were competitive with its own materials. The most commonly referenced problems by those in favor of permitting restrictions, though, are peer-to-peer file sharing, a totally unrelated phenomenon.1
It may seem unnecessarily alarmist to suggest that censorship will follow if internet service providers are permitted to determine what -- or at what price -- content is delivered to users. In fact, though, isn't determining what content is delivered what censorship is? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines censor as "to suppress or delete as objectionable" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/censoring accessed 05/12/08). That definition carries no implication of political material. Censorship is any form of control, and net neutrality is the opposite of that. In addition, what may begin as apolitical censorship can become any form of censorship the censor desires. One might, for instance, ask the Chinese, whose access to internet information is limited by the government, whether that limited access amounts to censorship.
What has this to do with scholars? At the office, nothing. Internet service in colleges and universities will not be impacted unless an individual campus somehow allows itself to be tricked by some unscrupulous service provider, a very unlikely event, to say the least. The problems will arise at home and when working in the field. As things stand, a scholar may access any internet site at any time for any reason. Similarly, he/she may upload or download files as required without a concern about timing or cost. The time lag endured may, in fact, be caused by heavy traffic -- the scholar's or someone else's traffic -- but there should be no system in place to discriminate for or against any particular traffic. (There are actually some non-neutral processes now in place; so this is not entirely accurate today.)
Should the internet service providers be permitted to change the rules from neutral to some other system, however, scholars working at home or in the field may indeed be impacted in ways that would be significant. Imagine, for instance, a limit on the size of files to be up- or downloaded online. You are working in the field, trying to upload a database or a CAD model or . . . to your campus server, and the system stops you -- or places an extra cost on the transfer or slows the transfer so drastically that you must remain online for hours. Similarly, working at home may involve accessing large files -- either data files of one sort or another or large PDFs (our Archaeological Computing is over 20 MB) or a PowerPoint file on the college server -- could simlarly be complicated and/or restricted and/or incur an extra charge.
The internet service providers will tell us all that those concerns are not real or that competition will mitigate the concerns. It seems to me that the history of these companies inspires no confidence. Nor does the current landscape that offers no real competition.
This issue has polarized people who are interested. Those supporting the service providers are strongly opposed to net neutrality rules and regulations, while those in favor of net neutrality may sound shrill in turn. As one who shares the concerns of those favoring net neutrality, I urge scholars to see this as an important issue that will affect their work. A good place to begin would be this editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle: dated April 17, 2008. (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/04/16/EDM11064UL.DTL) This piece is relatively hot off the press, but it states the issues well and should encourage scholars to take heed.
-- H. Eiteljorg, II
1. It may seem unnecessarily alarmist to suggest that censorship will follow if internet service providers are permitted to determine what -- or at what price -- content is delivered to users. In fact, though, isn't determining what content is delivered what censorship is? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines censor as "to suppress or delete as objectionable" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/censoring accessed 05/12/08). That definition carries no implication of political material. Censorship is any form of control, and net neutrality is the opposite of that. In addition, what may begin as apolitical censorship can become any form of censorship the censor desires. One might, for instance, ask the Chinese, whose access to internet information is limited by their government, whether that limited access amounts to censorship. Return to text.
For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.