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November 06, 2006

Can Citizen Journalism Save the Internet? Does it Need to?

Note:  This post originally ran on newassignment.net.

The Internet has made a new kind of citizen journalism possible.  The Internet may need citizen journalists to keep it open and useful in the United States.

It’s pretty clear that we DON’T have a problem with content-based Internet blocking in the US today.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t tomorrow.  “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” But that’s not what this post about.

We MAY have a problem with commercially-motivated blocking.  At&t CEO Ed Whitacre has been clear that he considers parts of the Internet “my pipes” and that he believes at&t has a commercial right to charge information providers differentially for use of the pipes that we and the information providers believe are already paying for once. 

Other telco execs have echoed this view.

Legislation requiring net neutrality has been proposed but may not be a good idea.  It is very difficult to define the concept and enforcement itself might be a dangerous government intrusion.

But how do we avoid the need for neutrality legislation?  How do we know if legislation has become the lesser of two evils?  That’s where citizen journalism comes in.

I think that the Internet pipe which I rent to my house is MY pipe.  And my pipe – a satellite connection from WildBlue at a summer cottage -  didn’t seem to be working the way I wanted it to: I couldn’t use it to log on to Skype. (I knew that, for technical reasons, geostationary satellites cannot provide good VoIP.  But that didn’t explain why I couldn’t logon.)

Without any formal structure, a form of citizen journalism exists in the forums that sprout up around most major services.  I was already a member of the Skype forum and joined the WildBlue forum.  Discussion threads on both indicated successful use of WildBlue to access Skype (along with the expected quality problems) up to a few weeks prior to my bad experience.  But, immediately after an announcement of an alliance between WildBlue and at&t, Skype logon seemed to have become impossible for most (but not all) users of WildBlue. At about the same time, Skype announced limited availability of free calling to ordinary phones in the US and Canada. There was speculation that these events were related; that WildBlue was trying to please its new telco friends by blocking competing voice services.

But speculation and evidence are two different things. New versions of Skype and updates happen all the time. Could Skype have inadvertently broken its own ability to connect over high latency connections such as satellite provides?  Gamers who also sensitive to response times were also reporting new troubles with connections to their favorite game sites over WildBlue.  And some WildBlue customers were reporting a continued ability to connect with Skype.  Skype software doesn’t include useful debugging aids. How are we to know what these providers are doing?  How do we know whether the provider we buy access from is giving us the neutral access to the Internet most of us want to buy?  Is there a need for regulation or just informed consumers?

WildBlue tech support said that nothing was broken and wouldn’t test with Skype.  They cited their advertising and service agreement and both make clear that VoIP and gaming are not supported services due to the limitations of satellite. Meanwhile, software that checks connections for VoIP suitability did NOT indicate general VoIP blocking.

There is no Skype technical support that you can call and the email support offered only platitudes.  Thanks to help from friend and fellow blogger Jeff Jarvis, I did finally get an offer of technical support from Skype.  Now, I thought, 'we’ll find out what’s going on.'

But it was not to be.  As mysteriously as it had stopped working, my Skype logon started working with WildBlue. The same was true for others who posted on the forums.  As far as I know, I didn’t change anything.

It may have been deliberate blocking, a poor (in my view) decision on packet prioritization, or an innocent by-product of seemingly unrelated changes.  It may have been fixed deliberately or inadvertently.

WildBlue isn’t very important but at&t is, especially since their proposed acquisition of BellSouth has already been approved without condition by the Justice Department and the FCC may remove remaining obstacles soon.  What Time Warner and the other few remaining major cable providers do is crucial to maintaining an Internet that is neutral to who is providing what service. But how are we to know what these mega providers are doing?  How do we know whether the provider we buy access from is providing us the neutral access to the Internet most of want to buy?  Is there a need for regulation or just for informed consumers?  Is there any problem at all?

Thanks to Dan Gillmor, I was invited to lead a discussion (audio here) about the search for answers like these at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.  The people there are more than interested in finding answer and looking for ways to help. Their efforts may well be part of a solution.

There is other work going on.  Speaking at the Black Hat Conference, Dan Kaminsky announced that he is developing shareware (which he tells me will be open source) to monitor for packet discrimination.

An organized effort will be needed to assure a neutral Internet and this is where a model like NewAssignment's can come into play.  With a complex story, there is value in having professional editors coordinate stories developed by citizen reporters.

Here’s what I hope will happen:

  1. Open source software will be developed by Berkman, Kaminsky and others that can detect how well various kinds of packets are handled over various connections.
  2. This software will be incorporated into the existing applications that check raw connectivity or suitable for VoIP or other uses.
  3. Many of us will elect to become feet-on-the street running this software in the background on our machines.
  4. A SETI-like application or applications will be developed to collect and analyze results (NO single result is meaningful).
  5. Volunteer nerds will drill down on suspected violations of net neutrality.  Many will be spurious; many will be accidental and will be fixed willingly; some may be intentional.
  6. An experienced editor (NewAssignment.net?) will continuously collate results and produce stories (good OR bad news) as appropriate for use both on the Net and by traditional journalists.
  7. The story will be regarded as continuous and ongoing because the potential problem is continuous and ongoing
  8. The existence of watchers will discourage violation of Net Neutrality by ISPs.
  9. Failing #8, informed consumers will be able to find neutral ISPs.
  10. Failing #9 (most likely because of market concentration), we’ll have evidence for antitrust action under existing law.
  11. Failing #10, maybe it is time for new legislation.

This is a big role for citizen journalism.

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