Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

How does Net Neutrality Affect Genealogists?

You may or may not have had a startling warning appear on your computer telling you that the website you are trying to use may be blocked in the future. These unsupported and alarming messages are part of the battle going on over the euphemistically named issue of "net neutrality."

As genealogists, some of us spend a lot of time working online on our computers. Issues such as current hullabaloo over net neutrality intrude into our work whether we are interested or not. Because the entire issue, if there is one, is so emotionally politicized, it is almost impossible to get a fair idea of what is actually being discussed and what the issues are all about. Because this issue intrudes into my daily use of the internet, I finally decided to write about the issue.

First of all, a bare bones definition of net neutrality:
The principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
If you think about this for even a few seconds, you will begin to see that this statement opens up a whole Pandora's box of issues. Do we really want every terrorist, pornographic and other evil websites in the world to have free and complete access to the entire internet? At one level this statement seems to be advocating unlimited and unrestricted speech even when that speech is dangerous and destructive. Do you really want spammers to have unlimited and complete access to you and your family?

What most of the emotional appeals current being made ignore is the difference between regulating content, i.e. the message of the signal and the signal itself. Related ideas include not only net neutrality, but also open standards, transparency, lack of Internet censorship, and low barriers to entry.

The key here to understanding what is going on is to focus on the three words at the beginning of the definition: "Internet service providers." This whole issue is not about whether or not terrorists can send you messages, but, at its core, it is about the ability of commercial internet service providers' ability to limit and charge different fees for different commercial activities. For example, can Comcast or Cox charge more for streaming Netflix than they do for streaming some other content? However, the argument has been put into the context of the individual internet user's ability to freely connect to content. Here is a quote from, a private organization.
When you go online you have certain expectations. You expect to be connected to whatever website you want. You expect that your cable or phone company isn’t messing with the data and is connecting you to all websites, applications and content you choose. You expect to be in control of your internet experience. 
When you use the internet you expect Net Neutrality.
Hmm. But you might get a little more insight into what is going on if you keep reading into the next paragraphs:
Net Neutrality is the basic principle that prohibits internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites you want to use. Net Neutrality is the way that the internet has always worked. 
In 2015, millions of activists pressured the Federal Communications Commission to adopt historic Net Neutrality rules that keep the internet free and open — allowing you to share and access information of your choosing without interference. 
But right now this win is in jeopardy: Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, wants to destroy Net Neutrality. And on May 18, the FCC voted to let Pai’s internet-killing plan move forward.
Who is this? Here is their explanation: is a project of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund. Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund do not support or oppose any candidate for public office. We are nonpartisan organizations fighting to save the free and open Internet, curb runaway media consolidation, protect press freedom, and ensure diverse voices are represented in our media.
I could go on. If you want to know more you can look up this charity and many others on the Charity Navigator.

I am reminded of the battle that occurred many years ago when VCRs were first introduced. The big movie producing companies wanted to ban VCR taping. They took the position that if individuals could record movies, then the movie industry would be destroyed. They put up petitions on tables in the theaters to gain public support. Today, the movie industry makes more money off of DVDs and licensing than they sometimes do off of theater presentations. Additionally, the movie industry was certainly not destroyed by recorded movies. As with the present net neutrality issues, the discussion involved the method of distribution and not directly the content.

Sometimes, even though the various parties react in highly emotional ways, none of the "solutions" proposed really address the underlying issues. There are countries in the world that limit almost all the content of their internet service providers. For example, Netflix is completely blocked in China it is also blocked in some countries due to regulations from the U.S. Government. Do we have a fundamental, human right to watch Netflix?

Has the internet always been free and open? Not at all. It actually started out as the ARPANET or the Advanced Research Project Agency Network run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.

The real issues here are commercial and political. As they say, "follow the money." Who will benefit from "net neutrality" and who will end up paying more for internet access? For more information, start with this article on Wikipedia: Net neutrality.

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