a memo

Lessig on municipal networks

The Internet is fundamentally a network of peers. Packets sent by me are supposed to be handled the very same way, by agreement and common standard, as packets sent by Brand-X Megacorp.

Of course, some of the top-tier ISPs, and I'll single out the SBC/AT&T/Cingular megaplex since they're the subject of some controversy among alpha-geeks right now, want to be able to charge more for some packets.

Specifically, they want to charge more for packets containing commercial content, on the basis that those packets are somehow more valuable than all of the others.

In exchange for this predatory business practice they seem willing to forgo the protections afforded to "common carriers," exposing their shareholders to liability for any fraudulent of illegal packets sent over their networks. In other words, if they transmit packets used in the commission of a crime, they could be held accountable.

And the first time that happens, guess whose packets they will no longer consent to carry? That's right: yours and mine. The end of net neutrality will make it impossible for ISPs to allow the common man and woman to connect to the Internet as a peer. For that matter, it will make it impossible for them to transmit any email, considering the number of scams being perpetrated by the second in that medium alone.

Unless there are viable non-commercial alternatives, of course! As freedom lawyer Lawrence Lessig reminds us, cooperatives can accomplish amazing feats of transparent engineering when motivated by need. And not being able to send and receive email would qualify as a pretty big need.

The Internet as we know it may become a locked-down, commercialized, sanitized, rights-managed toll-road. But there are tens of millions of users who will choose to opt out of the commercial networks and forge ahead with a true network of peers. Just like the old days.

We can do it the hard way, on our own and with limited connectivity and bandwidth (think BBS), or we can convince our city and state governments to spend some fraction of a percent of our taxes to ensure that we all get a free and open internet, supplied by a common carrier.

So let AT&T charge as much as it wants for its pipes, and the sooner the better. When only MSN can afford to send content to AT&T subscribers, there will be exactly 5 subscribers left. Everyone else will be watching YouTube on the muni-net.

By Chris Snyder on January 14, 2007 at 12:08pm

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