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Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it

Originally published on Liberal Conspiracy – 3/12/2012

At 10:26 GMT on 30th November, the Google traffic monitoring service recorded a total halt in all internet services in Syria. The research firm Rensys has noted that “all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the internet.”

While this on its own is troubling, as it no doubt signals another attempt by the Syrian government to undermine the organisational abilities of the opposition forces in the country, this literal plug-pulling is sadly just one more example of a government abusing its control of network provision.

The Google Transparency report details a terrifyingly long list, compiled from only the last few years, of each instance where some or all of a country’s access to the internet has ceased. Some of the culprits won’t surprise you – Iran, China, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt all have a dire record of providing stable network services.

However, some of the smaller examples listed hint at a greater problem beyond malign, repressive states. In March 2009, Bangladeshis were totally unable to access YouTube for 4 days after the government claimed that a video threatened to escalate a military crisis.

In August the same year, Morrocans were blocked from using Google Earth for over a year as arguments over the Western Sahara enflamed. In January 2010 the Kazakh government blocked its citizens from viewing a number of different news and blogging websites associated with the opposition movement.

We need only look to our own shores to see how net neutrality, the idea that all information online is equal and free from interference, is under threat. During the London riots many public figures demanded that the Blackberry Messaging service (BBM) be shut down, and only recently the Home Secretary Theresa May’s flagship Data Communications Bill, which would allow for blanket surveillance of all internet usage, was revived for a second consideration in parliament.

Meanwhile, internet service providers are flirting with two-tier access systems; by allowing content providers to pay for better service, the net would essentially be segregated into premium and ‘economy’ services.

These examples are indicative of a festering global crisis which threatens free and open access to internet services, but while these infractions have met widespread public opposition, they are only ever criticised individually. The wider problems facing open data and equal access are overlooked in these sporadic bursts of outrage and at present only a few campaign bodies, such as the Open Rights Group, have stood up for the integrity of the net as a whole.

These groups have commendable proposals for protecting online equality; repealing the Digital Economy Act, for example, would loosen up the copyright laws which have given huge entertainment companies a financial dominance over artists and creators.

Statutory measures are also an effective means for underpinning users’ rights, but what is needed most of all is a continual campaign of awareness and reporting. If Britain is truly supposed to be a standard-bearer for democracy, free citizenry, and government accountability, it’s time that we start expecting those same qualities online, for internet users both in the UK and worldwide.

Unless we alert the wider public to this slow death of the free internet, the true value of open access will never be treasured.

And if we stay silent when other nations (mis)use the net to oppress their peoples, it won’t be long until the internet goes the way of all other technologies which were once capable of such feats; grossly over-regulated, unnecessarily commercialised, and incapable of serving the needs of those it was created for.



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