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August 04, 2006

Speaking on Net Neutrality

Although I’m not currently an advocate of Net Neutrality regulation or legislation, I very much believe we need an Internet which remains essentially neutral and application agnostic.  It’s very important to know whether Internet access or backbone providers are blocking or disadvantaging applications which compete with their own services – especially since some CEOs like at&t’s Ed Whitacre have threatened to do exactly that.

One very good way to know if we have a problem is to have a large group of Internet users monitor their ISPs and access to various sites and applications.  It would be very helpful to have unobtrusive tools we net monitors could run whenever we suspect that a particular application – VoIP, for example – is being blocked by someone in the Internet food chain.

This monitoring is very much in line with what Dan Gillmor calls “citizen journalism” and Jeff Jarvis prefers to call “networked journalism”.  It also might fit with Jay Rosen’s newly announced NewAssignment.net.

Even the known existence of a corps of citizen monitors might discourage anti-competitive behavior.  On the other hand, if such behavior is detected, it might be possible to use existing antitrust law to stop it.  If not, maybe the monitoring proves that I am wrong and that new regulation or legislation – as dangerous as that might be – IS needed.

This won’t be easy to set up.  We need monitoring software – preferably open source so we can make sure that it is not biased itself.  We need testers of the monitoring software.  Many volunteers to run it.  Technically adept volunteers to verify results and to probe deeper into apparent instances of net discrimination.  And bloggers – and/or traditional media – to publicize the result.

Dan Gillmor has arranged for me to discuss all this at a luncheon at the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, August 8.  Details are at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/home/fellows_luncheon_series and a webcast will be at rtsp://harmony.law.harvard.edu/webcast.sdp.  You can ask questions or comment via irc chat at irc://irc.freenode.net/berkman.  If you’re going to be in the area and want to come, check the luncheon series site (above) for availability and registration information.

So far this is just an idea – not a reality.  I will be as much looking for answers as suggesting them at the talk.  Hope you can participate.  I’ll post what I learn. BTW, I’m using the tag “blocknot” for this effort so feel free to do the same if contributing.

Some of my posts on Net Neutrality are here and here, a post on Ed Whitacre and “his” pipes is here, and an earlier post on a citizen effort to detect blocking is here. 

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