Friday, June 02, 2006

Net neutrality?

It seems like only yesterday that early internet users were up in arms at the commercial takeover of an instrument designed by geeks for geeks. As I recall, the first ad posting was for a law firm in Arizona. When was that? 1994? Not much more than a decade ago. When has any human invention so quickly transformed society?

The world wide web was conceived by Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist working at the CERN nuclear research facility near Geneva, in the early 1990s. It was the product, he said, of his "growing realization that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way." A defining early decision by CERN was to make the web publicly available without fees.

The web has remained essentially anarchic, linking the world in a grand grab bag of ideas -- sane and looney, wild and wonderful, a free-for-all cyber universe of
everything that makes us human.

It is something of a miracle that the web has by and large escaped the control of governments (although you can be sure they are monitoring traffic) and the big telecoms who would dearly love to harness the web for maximum commercial gain.

In recent days we are seeing the first ads and op-eds for and against "net neutrality." Now I must confess that most of the debate is over my head. But it seems the big telecoms want control not only over the pipes (the internet) but what goes through the pipes (the www).

My idea of net neutrality means that ScienceMusings has the same unconstrained access to the web as does Google or Amazon. The little guys and the big guys on an equal playing field.

The service providers want to charge tiered fees for web access, and marginalize smaller, poorer customers. Their ads make it sound like they are on the side of freedom, against government control, and so on, sort of like Bush's "tax relief for all Americans." My neck bristles.

I pay Comcast $40 a month for my cable, and fair enough. Through their cable I have unrestricted access to a world of ideas -- the first in human history -- not controlled by churches, governments, or corporations. The glorious democratic unifying potential of the web is in its infancy. Let's hope the infant is not strangled in the cradle.

Here (thanks, Tom) is a map of recent visits to Science Musings (click to enlarge). All of us together, from Anchorage to Ankara, from Cali to Cairo. A beautiful thing.