Net Neutrality And The Fight Against The Tea Party Movement

This week, the Federal Communications Commission made the monumental decision to classify internet access as a utility, enshrining net neutrality (i.e. the equitable distribution of internet resources to all legal services, no matter what the service is or who owns it) in the United States and striking a decisive blow against the cable companies of the US. I welcome this decision, working as it does in favour of both the common internet user and those companies providing true innovation on the internet – such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Netflix, et cetera. Of course, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and so on have protested this decision, but I think it’s time for them to be cut down to size, given their distinct lack of innovation, their oligopolic greed and the fact that they have consistently been among the most unfriendly and unaccommodating companies around, distinct for their dismal customer service and their disregard for any sort of customer satisfaction.

The protests of Comcast, Time Warner Cable and so on aren’t surprising; after all, they have reasons for wanting to protect their oligopoly on the provision of internet connection, even if these work against their customers. Not surprising either are the protests of Ted Cruz, one of the more insipid members of the Tea Party movement of the Republican Party of the United States. Let’s get this straight off the bat: Ted Cruz is an ignoramus, ready to fight any sort of sensible decision as long as he can get one up on the Democratic Party – you know, like the rest of the Tea Party. He’s also a dangerous ignoramus, being the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, despite having next to no knowledge of science – he’s not only a climate change denier, but more terrifyingly, a creationist. What’s more, he’s very clearly in the pocket of the big cable companies of the US. However, the very fact that he’s a known crooked, science-denying ignoramus makes him predictable and we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s fighting on the side of the people who pay him to.

What is surprising and more than a little worrying, though, is the fact that anybody has been able to take him seriously. More than a few have, nevertheless, claiming that governmental ‘interference’ will cause the downfall of the internet. The people saying this appear to be the same selfish individualists who have caused the recent outbreaks of measles in the United States due to their strident disregard for public safety by refusing to vaccinate their children. Their thought process seems to be that anything that they can’t perceive as directly helping them and which has the smell of government about it harms their freedom, in a sort of “gubmint bad” sense of the term. This applies even when the end result of the process will actually help them, by not having companies run roughshod over the concept of competition and not having them straitjacketing any company which doesn’t pay a king’s ransom to have their services provided at full speeds.

I’ll be fair here and state that my politics have traditionally been at least centre-left, in the European social democratic tradition, so I’m inherently going to be somewhat opposed to the principles of the Republican Party (and more recently, to the Democrats as well). That said, the trouble here isn’t capitalism, since on many occasions, the competition of a well-regulated market can benefit innovation and lead to new opportunities which improve our lives. However, the oligopoly of the American internet provider market does nothing to benefit innovation and without net neutrality, will actually harm it. Don’t find yourselves roped in by the selfish words of crooked politicians, paid to take a stand and ignorant of the true details behind the issue and if you’re in the US, don’t give the Tea Party any of your credence or support; they’re not on your side.

Goodbye, SOPA, and good riddance

In the wake of the recent blackout of many websites, including Wikipedia, it appears that the ill will directed towards the Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA, has led to its shelving by Congress, as well as a postponing of the bill by its founder, Rep. Lamar S. Smith. I, among many others, am very reassured by this. Some of the objectors to SOPA were themselves small-scale copyright holders whose businesses would be harmed by the passing of the bill; others were people interested in net neutrality and in privacy on the internet. Others still were pirates whose jobs would be made somewhat more difficult with the passing of SOPA, and it should be remembered that their acts are repugnant, such an approach to stopping their actions as SOPA would have enabled was potentially very short-sighted, with a lot of scope for abuse and manipulation of the system.

My objections to SOPA (and for that matter, to the similar PIPA bill and to DMCA and others in the past) come somewhat from my support of free and open-source software, including that which underpins the internet. I’m not a particular fan of copyright in many ways in other fields either; while I think that it is a necessary evil, I don’t think that 70 year periods of copyright do anybody any good, nor do I think that many of the bigger parties with copyright protection in the music, cinema or video games industry actually deserve most of their money. That isn’t my main concern with SOPA, though. My main concern is that the bill was proposed and sponsored by a set of politicians who seem to know next to nothing about computers, and whose support of the bill seems to have been swung much more by the funding that each of them has received from the MPAA and RIAA than any actual education on the subject.

I don’t know much about Lamar Smith’s voting record, nor much about his achievements as a politician. What I do know, however, is that he is not a computer scientist, nor does he seem to have any sort of formal education in computing or in information technology nor in any allied field. Indeed, of all of the co-sponsors of SOPA, only a single one seemed to have any sort of formal computing education, a situation which is echoed in the PIPA bill, and indeed in the DMCA before it. This, then, is a set of law-educated politicians deciding things on technology without knowing anything substantial about the technology which they’re imposing laws on. That’s like letting me set new statutes on the limits of fraud, a situation which is at once risible, preposterous and more than a bit unsettling.

I’m really very distressed by the ease at which these acts can be proposed by people who remain ignorant of the things they seek to change. Luckily, the response to SOPA has stopped it in its tracks, and I say, once again, “Good riddance!” to it. However, PIPA is still in the pipeline, ACTA is still being negotiated and other bills will surely follow. The war against technological ignorance in politics as well as the outside world is far from being won, and in fact, I know I’m on the losing side. We’ve won an important battle, though. Everybody who opposes SOPA and PIPA for the right reasons, keep up the good fight.