The Closing of the European Internet

Openness lies at the heart of the Internet, at every level. Indeed, the success of the Internet, and of the open services that run on top of it, was one of the first - and remains one of the most important - demonstrations of the benefits of adopting open architectures.

Unfortunately, it's an openness that is fairly subtle for non-technical people; above all, it's not at all obvious to politicians, who seem to assume that apparently minor tweaks won't change things much.

At least, that's the most charitable explanation for the fact that European politicians are on the brink of passing legislation in the current Telecoms Package that will destroy a key part of that openness, by allowing telecoms companies to discriminate in the way that they handle IP packets according to their type.

This loss of net neutrality has been dressed up by proponents as simply a case of allowing customers to shape the contours of the market through their purchases, but as they well know, it's actually a matter of giving telecoms companies a gatekeeper function that will let them control the Internet through anti-competitive differential pricing.

Tim Berners-Lee has emphasised the importance of net neutrality in the creation of a level playing field that allows innovative new services to emerge. Indeed, had there been no net neutrality when he invented the Web, it is quite likely that the latter would never have taken off, because closed rival services like AOL or CompuServe could have offered to pay more for preferential delivery of their content platforms.

The Web would have run more slowly, and people would have judged it as a weak and fairly useless alternative to existing platforms. Without the rapid take up and enthusiasm, there would probably have been little of the experimentalism and innovation that we saw in its early years, and the Web would have fizzled.

I've written about this threat before, but it seems that we are really approaching the moment of truth: the final vote is coming on 5 May, and the clauses threatening net neutrality are still there. Once again, a group of MEPs, among them the Swede Eva-Britt Svensson, are proposing some amendments to nullify that threat, and of the similarly-harmful “three strikes” proposal, but it's by no means clear they will be accepted.

Once again, then, we need to write to our MEPs explaining the danger that loss of net neutrality represents, both in terms of loss of freedom, but also in terms of loss of business opportunities for Europe, and asking them to support the Citizens' Rights amendments (my previous letters on the subject that I've published in ComputerWorld UK on the subject should give you an idea of the kind of things you might want to say.)

Sadly, this is not the only way in which the open Internet is coming under attack. Readers will probably remember the scandal at the end of last year when it emerged that the shadowy Internet Watch Foundation was censoring a Wikipedia page. Even though most of us were only vaguely aware of this body, it's becoming clear that it wields almost unlimited and arbitrary power over what we can access, and that its role is set to increase.

This is part of a wider trend to censor Internet feeds. In Germany, there is a new bill to deny access to sites holding child pornography by using a centralised DNS block list. And nothing wrong with that, you might say, since there's clearly no justification for anyone ever viewing them.

But leaving aside tricky issues like who gets to decide what is pornographic, the problem is that once the authorities start blocking content they don't like, there's a natural temptation to widen the net. Indeed, both the music and book publishing businesses are pushing for P2P sites to be included in the DNS block list to prevent anyone in Germany accessing them.

This is clearly even more problematic. First, because there is plenty of legal content on these sites, and secondly, because commercial interests are trying to determine what ordinary users can or cannot access.

Online censorship is currently a separate issue from that of net neutrality or “three strikes”, but taken together they form a worrying trend of governments across Europe trying to close down the open Internet in a variety of ways. We need to fight all of them, and writing to your MEPs today about the Telecoms Pacakge amendments is a good starting point.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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