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There has been much buzz - especially in the tech community - over proposed legislation that would allow the president to seize control of or shut down the Internet by declaring a national emergency. It’s being called a “kill switch,” although the process would obviously be much more complicated than that term implies. What the bill actually does is require broadband providers, software companies, search engines, etc. to “immediately comply with any emergency measure or action” that is ordered: http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Kill-Switch
Many Americans are outraged by the idea, but the basic premise isn’t new. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, most of the country’s radio stations were shut down or taken over by the government. It was even illegal for private citizens to possess operational radio transmitters or receivers. http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Radio-History
So, for those who scoff at the thought that the president would ever actually /use/ such powers, it’s happened before (albeit with a different communications technology). It could happen again. Would it go as far this time? Would we find ourselves labeled criminals just for possessing computers and routers? Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But stop and think of some of the things that would have seemed absurd two decades ago but which have come about in the last decade: red light cameras, a child arrested for drawing on a school desk, a 12-year-old charged with a crime for opening his Christmas present early: http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Child-Arrest
Of course, the current”kill switch” bill puts an unprecedented amount of power in the hands of the president. Shutting down the Internet would have much more far-reaching consequences than shutting down radio broadcasts. Millions of people depend on the Internet to make a living, to stay in touch with their family members, to pay their bills and buy goods; it’s much more than just a venue for disseminating news.
When I first went online in the 1980s, the Internet was like the final frontier. It was a “place” that most people didn’t even know existed, and it was a mostly unregulated “wild west” that operated on the honor system - and did so amazingly well. Of course, people who are working in government or academia or who are paying $25/hour for the privilege of signing on tend to be relatively well behaved. The commercialization of the Internet in the 1990s brought in a broader demographic, and as access costs dropped and free access became widely available and Internet service came to be viewed as a “human right,” the same thing happened to the ‘Net that happens when small communities grow into big cities. The anonymity of large numbers brought out the worst in many people, and the criminal element moved in.
The next step was inevitable: well-intentioned folks bent on protecting Internet innocents from the bad boys got involved. Laws were passed. Nobody could argue with laws designed to protect children from predators, and few took issue with laws against cyberstalking, online fraud and the like. Electronic junk mail became a big problem and we got laws like the CAN SPAM Act. Music companies started losing money and we got laws like the DMCA. Software companies got up in arms about piracy and we got laws like the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act. People discovered a way to make money by buying up domain names that had the potential to become popular and we got laws like the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). The 109th Congress introduced over a thousand bills that referenced the Internet. And the rush to regulate the ‘Net goes on.
Otto von Bismarck is credited with the saying that “laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” Anyone who has been involved with the legislative process at any level knows that it’s fraught with tradeoffs and compromises and prayers and promises. Often the finished piece of legislation is nothing like it started out - and may be full of confusion and contradictions and vagueness that makes it either unenforceable or makes criminals out of good people. And many of the laws regulating the Internet have had unintended consequences. A few years ago, Eric Goldman put together a list of the (in his opinion) best and worst Internet laws: http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Internet-Laws
I guess a law giving the government total control of the Internet in our country is the ultimate progression of this trend toward more and more regulation. But you don’t have to go that far to change the Internet drastically. One regulatory movement that has gotten a lot of support because it sounds so good on the surface is the push for “net neutrality.” Prohibiting “discrimination” always sounds like a good idea, and net neutrality laws purport to make service providers treat all Internet traffic equally. What’s the problem with that? Well, one problem is that recent studies show that such rules are likely to cost the U.S. from half a million to 1.5 million jobs and up to $62 billion in lost gross domestic product. Sure, one of the studies was sponsored by AT&T and other service providers - who aren’t exactly neutral in this matter - but it’s hard to dispute the contention that government micromanagement of business usually ends up costing much more than anticipated: http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Net-Neutrality
Some analysts contend that net neutrality laws caused and will speed up the trend toward bandwidth caps and metered service structures and will result in the death of the unlimited data plan that’s still common in the U.S. (although not in some other countries). AT&T recently did away with the unlimited plans for their smart phones and Verizon is said to be considering following in their footsteps. http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Cellphone-Data-Tracking
The troubling thing is that this move toward capping usage comes at the same time we are being pushed hard to use much /more/ bandwidth. Devices are being designed to handle streaming video and audio and the tech industry is trying to drag us all, kicking and screaming, into the Cloud - where none of our data will reside on our computers and even using a simple word processing or photo editing application will require connecting to the Internet (and using precious bandwidth). These two trends may look great to providers, who hope to make a killing off charging us per-megabyte or per-gigabyte for greatly increased usage. But it sounds like an oil and water mixture for consumers, and it’s hard to say how many - especially those who have only recently embraced online activity - will balk at the high cost and go back to doing things the old fashioned way.
Another consequence of net neutrality laws and other impending regulations predicted by some analysts is that the carriers won’t build out their networks as they had been planning to do. AT&T said in the Wall Street Journal recently that if the FCC enacts net neutrality rules, the company will reevaluate whether to expand their U-verse service any further, and I heard from people who work with Verizon that company may have ditched some of its plans to expand its FiOS services because of the regulatory atmosphere. http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Drop-Net-Neutrality
Does all of this add up to a Perfect Storm that could tear the Internet to bits - or at least stop its progress dead in its tracks? Perhaps there’s no need for the president to have a “kill switch” if the Internet is slowly committing suicide. As I opined here over a year ago, we might look back one day soon and realize that we lived in the golden age of digital communications. Our children and grandchildren, instead of having wondrous technologies that go far beyond what we have today, may listen in wonder to our tales of a time when you could go online anytime you wanted, stay connected all day, download all manner of content, access web sites with political views that differed from those of the administration in power, get plenty of work done on a computer even without an Internet connection - all this without being wealthy or “connected” in the other sense of the word.
I hope that’s not how it plays out.
Tell us what you think. Does the trend toward more and more laws regulating the Internet make you wary, or do you think they’re badly needed? Are the warnings that over-regulation will cause carriers and providers to pull back on their investments just “Chicken Little” hype or is there a real chance that all this government intervention will end up making a mess of things? Is it a good idea, or a horrible one, to give the president the authority to “pull the plug” on the ‘Net, or is it naïve to think he didn’t already have that power anyway? We invite you to discuss this topic in our forum at http://www.wxpnews.com/73ONLA/100621-Forum-Discussion