With Internet service providers (ISPs) able to control content and give preferential speed to compliant web sites, questions have been raised about the interconnection between network neutrality and the right to free speech.
Three panelists discussed net neutrality – broadband networks free of restrictions on content, sites, or platforms – on Wednesday, in a talk organized by Flo Schade, U1 Industrial Relations and Vice President of the McGill chapter of Borderless World Volunteers.
Panelist Leslie Shade, associate professor of media studies and MA Program Director at Concordia University, admitted that a discussion revolving around packets and bits often makes the debate unappealing to the average person.
“How can you sex [net neutrality] up a bit? There’s so much technical information that it’s hard for most to get a grasp of why it’s an important issue,” Shade said.
The net neutrality debate centers on what rights ISPs – such as AT&T, Bell, and Videotron – have over the information transferred on their wires, which may restrict end-user’s right to equal access to Internet files.
As the Internet was developed to be an open, non-proprietary network, ISPs do not want to be classed as utilities, and claim their “tubes” are different from phone lines, electrical lines, and water pipes, which are more highly regulated due to their monopolistic nature.
If service providers have a right to discriminate against certain content through network management, the open principles of the Internet and rights to free speech may be at stake, said the panelists.
Professor Becky Lentz, assistant professor of media and public policy at McGill, believed that a clear definition of net neutrality is needed so that the regulators know what principles to enforce
“Non-net neutrality positions become a method of control,” Lentz said, pointing to ISPs’ stated necessity for filtering content to protect children or stop piracy. “We have to examine what they want to control and how they argue for the need to do that.“
Cameron McAlpine, account manager at Optimum Public Relations and former communications adviser to M2Z Networks – a company that lobbied unsuccessfully to transform the United States into a free wireless hotspot – focused on the network builders’ and operators’ argument that regulation is not necessary.
“Tiering creates a free speech problem,” McAlpine said. “But the AT&Ts and the Verizons of the world would say that the way to access the network is over their pipe, their wires, and they should be able to offer a range of services at a range of prices in order to cover the cost of building the system.”
Lentz also argued the physical telecommunication infrastructure required to connect users to the Internet raises questions about whether the Internet merely exists on computers, or in the wires that connect them together.
“Basically, it’s just devices connecting to a large network,” Lentz said. “Some of it is physical, some of it is virtual, and it’s important to know the details so you can understand whether the Internet is the ends, or the middle, or both.”
McAlpine argued that the ISPs are concerned with corporations like Google and Amazon that serve huge amounts of data and profit from the use of a physical infrastructure in which they invested no money.
“The ISPs don’t want your ten dollars; they want a piece of Google’s $100-million,” he said.
McAlpine drew laughs from the crowd as he highlighted how support for net neutrality crosses ideological lines.
“The Save the Internet Coalition’s two biggest proponents are The Christian Coalition and MoveOn.org. Try to get those two in a room together and see what happens.”
Lentz agreed that the issue is far more complex than the usual causes that garner student support on campus.
“You can’t look at this issue in the same way you might look at others. It doesn’t really fall on a conservative versus liberal spectrum,” she said.
The panel agreed with an audience member who stated that the average Member of Parliament or Senator has no idea that this is an issue they should be concerned with. The panel then discussed how three net neutrality bills have died when past Parliaments have dissolved.
“There is a big generational gap, I suspect, between the policy-makers and the youth who use the Internet on a daily basis,” said Shade.