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UW-Madison scholars offer a map to the net neutrality debate
Information toll road or freeway?
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Maybe you've spotted it in your daily news feed in the last few weeks. Net neutrality -- the idea that the Internet should remain an open, democratic, free-market medium for all people, regardless of how much they pay -- is getting mainstream attention.

At the UW-Madison, Danny Kimball and Lucas Graves both study issues involving net neutrality. Kimball is an instructor and Ph.D. candidate in UW-Madison's Communication Arts Department specializing in new media; net neutrality is the focus of his dissertation. Graves is a former Wired reporter and now an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

"Net neutrality" is often framed as a battle between Internet service providers and Internet content providers, in which the Comcasts and ATTs of the world can charge the Facebooks and Amazons more money to offer their content at faster speeds

But that's an oversimplification of the issue. Kimball warns that in the absence of net neutrality, the Internet is in danger of turning into "a place for big media companies to distribute their products, or for the people who own the pipes to send out the stuff that they own or favor."

Imagine if your Internet service provider (ISP) dictated which websites you could visit. Asks Graves, "Do we want our broadband providers to be more like newspapers, shopping malls, cable channels and other venues that make choices about what's available to us?"

Looking back at the history of the Internet helps explain how we arrived here. In the old days of dial-up, our ISPs called the Internet on the phone. Their only role was to connect us. Thus, the same "common carriage" rules that ensured our phone calls would be connected, whether or not the phone company liked who we were calling, applied. "This is what net neutrality is all about -- the idea that you should be able to access what you want without somebody messing with it," Kimball says.

The idea behind the information highway was that "the government would play a role in laying down the basic infrastructure that would make it possible, and citizens and businesses would be free to use it," Graves explains.

When broadband came along, cable companies started offering Internet. But they weren't just connecting us to the Internet; they also owned the infrastructure.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) felt this new model was different enough that it in 2002 it declassified ISPs as common carriers, removing its own authority over them. Kimball explains that the FCC "bought into the idea that having fewer regulations was going to be a good thing for competition."

Instead, ISPs started separating different types of technologies, speeding up some and slowing down others, so as to charge more for certain kinds of traffic, Kimball says. ISPs claimed the flexibility to prioritize content, or charge more for certain content, would help them buy improved infrastructure.

In other words, Graves says, "If you're a cable company, being reduced to a dumb pipe is not that attractive. You'd rather bundle packages and charge for them."

In 2008, Comcast made headlines when it blocked users from BitTorrent. The FCC cried foul. Comcast sued, pointing out the absence of rules prohibiting its actions, and won. This was a wake-up call.

Fearing the end of an open Internet, the FCC decided rules were needed after all and wrote some, but its decision in 2002 to strip itself of authority over broadband came back to bite it.

In late April of this year, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler all but raised a white flag, proposing rules that would allow network providers to go ahead and prioritize content, as long as they are acting in a "commercially reasonable manner." Critics say this is the perfect habitat for a tiered Internet, which will undermine neutrality.

In response, 100 Internet companies including Dropbox, Etsy, Foursquare and Microsoft, sent a letter on May 7 to the FCC expressing their fears. Despite pleas from the tech sector, the public and lawmakers to postpone a vote on Wheeler's proposal, it's scheduled for May 15.

All along, Kimball and Graves have urged public participation. Says Kimball, "We can send messages to the FCC, letting them know this is something people care about." Graves agrees: "The most important thing is to communicate with the FCC and with your representatives. It turns out to be true that our elected representatives can be influenced by this kind of feedback."

If the rules pass, that shouldn't necessarily stop anyone who uses the Internet from holding companies accountable. "If there aren't going to be as many rules regulating what your ISP can and can't do, then that implicates all of us as being our own watchdogs," Kimball says.

Speaking freely, sharing ideas, connecting -- these are things Kimball says "we can't take for granted. I think it would be a shame to lose that kind of participatory nature of the Internet."

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