March 16, 2010

Will Congress Wreck the Internet?

Greetings. The Federal Communications Commission has finally released its long-awaited Broadband Plan, and many of the really meaty recommendations have been handed over to Congress for their studied analysis and actions. Other parts of the plan can in theory be implemented directly by the FCC -- but we can rest assured that all but the most trivial moves by either Congress or the Commission associated with ISP regulations, broadband deployment, or related topics, are almost certain to trigger complex litigation, in many cases lasting for years.

I'm not a lawyer, so I'll leave the legal fun and games to those parties whose fetishes run in that particular direction.

Nor will I for now dig into the technical aspects of the Plan, which when all is said and done are likely to look far different if and when implemented than what the Commission proposes, particularly after Congress and the Courts have had their says.

For now though I'd like to pose a hypothetical question. Is it reasonable to assume that Congress will handle these complex broadband-related issues any better than they've managed to mangle health care reform, another area where very powerful forces interplay with Congress, often to the detriment of average consumers?

I don't want to be overly pessimistic. I'll admit I frequently tend to see the darker side of possibilities, but I've found that unfortunately to often be more realistic than not. Back in my more hard-core software engineering days, I found a touch of the tincture of pessimism to serve me well while coding -- trying to figure out the many ways things could go wrong helped to avoid program execution disasters ("Oops there goes another pointer ker-plop!" Chorus: "Ker-Plop!")

But having watched Congress wading their way waist deep into the "Big Muddy" [YouTube] of health care reform (my apologies, Pete Seeger) I'm increasingly concerned about what Congress may do for -- and to -- the Internet.

The irony is that virtually everyone agrees that we need to improve broadband in the U.S. -- just as there's general agreement that the existing U.S. health care system is pathetic in the ways it affects vast numbers of us.

I'd love to see real health care reform. I'm one of those self-employed people hit very hard indeed by this economy, and who is being priced totally out of the health insurance market -- very scary for someone aged on the wrong side of 39. So I watch in something akin to horror as Congress seems poised to pass health care reform that apparently would allow insurance companies to continuing jacking up premiums for years. In fact, they'd seem to have even more incentive to screw individual policyholders, given the new mandates included in the legislation.

Yet the health care status quo is also unthinkably awful. And process counts at least as much as outcome, especially in the long run, regardless of whether or not health care reform as currently written actually passes Congress a few days from now.

So it's instructive to consider how one particular aspect of the health care reform debate -- abortion funding -- has worked so effectively to warp many aspects of health care reform legislation (along with a great deal of help from the insurance industry itself and Big Pharma, of course).

Could the same sort of thing happen when Congress gets their hands on massive new broadband plans? After all, Congress has been called the ultimate of "with strings attached" institutions.

The answer unfortunately seems to clearly be yes.

Let's look at just one aspect of this for the moment. It's time for another hypothetical question.

Can we realistically expect that once large amounts of taxpayer dollars are involved in broadband deployment, Congress will not wish to "mold" the Internet in a politically expedient manner?

The shape that Congress might wish for the Net isn't very hard to visualize.

Congress has passed legislation multiple times to impose all manner of content controls on the Net. The Supreme Court has fought back these laws to date, but terms-of-use precedents suggest that they might be far more accepting of such restrictions when major taxpayer funding is involved.

Add to that the many calls -- including from a key Microsoft executive -- for "Internet Driver's Licenses" that would decimate the concept of user anonymity -- and the prospects for serious undermining of Internet civil liberties appear to be not at all far-fetched. The moves by nominally democratic countries such as Australia and New Zealand into Internet censorship regimes lends support to those in the U.S. who simply salivate at the thought of clamping down on the "Evil Internet."

One can almost hear the impassioned Congressional speeches. "My constituents won't pay to support an Internet that allows porn and hate speech, illegal downloading, and anonymous users who refuse to stand behind their comments! If we're to fund these broadband networks, we must insist that they not be allowed to become tools for criminals, terrorists, and malcontents like the Internet has been up to now!" (Loud applause from the gallery. FOX News commentators nod appreciatively.)

Unless a politician represents San Francisco, West Hollywood, or similar enclaves, they'd probably find this sort of "Net-Baiting" harangue to be a sure-fire vote-getter in most parts of the country.

Because the sad truth is that many -- perhaps the majority -- of people in the U.S. appear to fear the free-speech and anonymity aspects of the Internet -- aspects that are in my opinion among the Internet's most important and admirable attributes, even though both of those aspects can be and are subject at times to abuse by less than honorable individuals and organizations.

Enough questions. Now for a thought. It is my personal opinion that as Congress proceeds to consider the FCC Broadband Plan and the many involved implications, we must be exceedingly diligent to at least try assure that Congress does not treat broadband -- the Internet -- with the same sort of all too often short-sighted, skewed, and in some critical ways cavalier attitudes that have shaped the health care reform debate to date.

We must move forward with real "broadband reform" in this country, just as not ultimately proceeding with true health care reform would be calamitous.

But while Congress can indeed do immense good, it also has a history of doing tremendous damage as well -- often with the best of intentions in play throughout the process in either case.

Would Congress willingly "wreck" the civil liberties of Internet users? For that matter, will Congress' current extended foray into health care reform do more harm than good?

In Greek mythology, we might look to Atropos [YouTube] and her "shears of fate" for some insight into such futures. Absent her sage counsel, we can only really look inside ourselves.


Posted by Lauren at March 16, 2010 10:38 PM | Permalink
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