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Goodbye Google Old Friend: It’s time for the Open-Source Internet

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The issue of net neutrality has once again reared its ugly head, coming to a roiling boil with recent reports of Google entering a back-room deal with Verizon to end net neutrality. Although it is unclear whether these reports are entirely accurate–the PR wings of these two communications titans quickly disputed the claims–this issue is paramount to the Internet’s healthy growth and to the numerous entrepreneurs and startups that are banking on the Web-based Internet continuing to provide equal access to all participants.

The Argument for Net Neutrality

Net neutrality in a nutshell is the unfettered, equal access to the information highway. It means that whether you are an individual hosting a video podcast out of a small room in your apartment, or you are a large, traditional media player, you can expect to have the same opportunities. As long as you can pay for Internet access, your content–when traveling across the Internet backbone–will be treated the same as anyone else’s content.

What the monopolistic phone and cable companies want to do is rate limit the packet traffic traveling across their sections of the intertubes, providing fee-based preferential data transmittal. This in effect would result in many of the small, independent, upstart media companies from being able to compete on an equal footing with the larger, wealthy, more ensconced media behemoths. In essence, the phone and cable companies would decide what content was worthy to travel at the fastest rates. Those who can afford to pay the most will get the best service.

This could very well result in many small players–individual bloggers, Web-based startups, small traditional brick-and-mortar companies with online stores–from being kicked out of the game. There would be no realistic way in which small entities with equally-small or non-existent budgets, could compete for access with a well-funded major company. Those who had the most money would control what travelled across the Internet. The stark reality of this scenario is that it could very well be that most Web surfers and Web shoppers would not want to visit a site whose data trickles in compared to a large site whose data is received at blazingly-fast speeds.

It is important to realize that this is not an issue of a site running on an underpowered server, being hosted on an overcrowded shared server, or having exceeded any bandwidth limits on its hosting account. This is an entirely different issue. It is all about what happens once your data packets leave your ISP. Currently, they travel as fast as anyone else’s packets. But if Verizon (and now maybe Google) et al have their way, some packets will travel faster than others.

This could spell doom for the Internet’s healthy growth. In a strange, reverse chronological twist of history, the information-age of enlightenment could spiral down into the misinformation-dark ages. Although there is much misinformation and disinformation spread across the Web-based Internet today, small players, independent voices, and whistle blowers all have an equal platform from which to counter propaganda. But if a few large players in essence decide what gets broadcast across the intertubes by sheer virtue of their economic muscle, then the truth will be in constant jeopardy—not to mention just plain ole economic competition.

Although Google has championed the cause of net neutrality, in the past sometimes painting phone and cable companies as evil, these recent reports may presage the sad demise of a once-glorious friend and partner to the Internet. We should no longer view Google as the Internet’s big brother, the company that we can count on to guide us, protect us, and help us grow. Instead, we must watch out for it becoming the Internet’s Big Brother, a company that does whatever it wants to control, to monitor, and to profit over its minions.

It is an unfortunate, probably inevitable, reality that to remain competitive and provide a sufficient growth rate so that its stockholders remain happy with its performance, Google may have to turn to the dark side at some point. Could that time be approaching?

Even if this story turns out to be blown out of proportion and Google remains the Internet’s loyal friend, is it wise to continue to trust and rely upon a few large companies to act in the best interest of the Web’s netizens?

Enter the Open-Source Internet

The open-source software movement is responsible for many of the Web-based Internet’s glowing gems. There are numerous open-source tools from programming languages, to server software, to database engines, to content management systems that have been instrumental in building the Web-based Internet. These low-cost or no-cost tools have allowed individuals to hack together paradigm-changing services from the comfort of their small rooms. These tools have been equalizing forces in many once-competitively lopsided business markets.

So why can’t the spirit, energies, and values of the open-source software movement be harnessed to create an open-source Internet? The open-source Internet would be a technological landscape where the whims of a few market players or the malevolence of rogue governments could not alter the premise of the game. At the core of the open-source Internet would be the belief in net neutrality, net equality, and freedom.

The open-source Internet would be a system where all of its parts are governed by open-source principles. There are already a few key parts in place: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a not-for-profit corporation charged with the management and oversight of the Domain Name System; the availability of numerous open-source software products, many that are currently used by Internet Service Providers; a cadre of willing and able people waiting for the opportunity to bring a vision like this to fruition. (Note: see update section below for recent concerns with ICANN)

A big issue would be gaining control over sufficient bandwidth in the various trunk lines of the Internet’s backbone. There currently is quite a lot of dark fiber (unused ultra-high capacity fiber cable) sitting idle. Level 3 is one of the largest owners of dark fiber in the world. Perhaps a non-profit consortium could be formed to negotiate a deal. The next big hurdle would then be the myriad hardware components and requisite buildings to house the equipment. Once again, this is not an insurmountable task, it is just a monumental task requiring great foresight, tons of effort, and initially some really deep pockets.

The biggest issue, and the final hurdle, could very well be the show stopper—providing Internet access to users. This is of course where the AT&T’s, Verizon’s, and Comcast’s of the world have a decided monopoly. It is why the issue of net non-neutrality is even possible. Even if a consortium is formed and successfully negotiates access and control over a piece of the Internet’s backbone, the final road into users’ homes and businesses will be controlled by the select few communication companies. They are the de facto gatekeepers to the Internet. They are the final obstacle to creating an open-source Internet.

And this brings us full circle to the start of this article. As the gatekeepers between our computers and the Internet, the Big Brother telecoms effectively have us between a rack and a hard drive. Although it is conceivable to open source most of the Internet’s parts, the last mile is tightly guarded by the telecoms. They spend billions of dollars in legal and lobbying activities to maintain their grasp on the Internet’s cul-de-sacs, the all-important connections with endusers.

The cost of open-sourcing the last mile would almost be astronomical. Ironically, this is the one aspect of this vision where Google could actually play the major role. At one point, Google (and perhaps Apple) was vying for purchasing the rights to a large block of the newly-released wireless spectrum that was going to be auctioned off by the government. It was thought that they might possibly offer WiFi or WiMax Internet access to endusers, putting the issue of net neutrality to rest once and for all. With these new reports about Google’s possible deal making with Verizon, you have to wonder if their do-no-evil mantra has been mothballed.

It’s important to state that this is not an anti-capitalism stance. It is an anti-monopoly stance focused on keeping the Internet’s playing field level. It is a pro-startup stance aimed at ensuring competitiveness at all levels on the Internet.

Even if an open-source Internet might not be a realistic possibility, we still have a chance to fight back. If you believe in net neutrality, please contact your elected Federal officials and let them know why this issue is so important. Our nation’s economic future and the sovereignty of truth are at risk if the interweb’s landscape is skewed to favor the few.

What do you think?

How can the open-source software community bring the vision of an open-source Internet to fruition? Are there viable business models that can help build-out and sustain an open-source Internet? Is net neutrality something that the world’s governments should ensure? Will you continue to support Google by using their products if the reports of their collusion with Verizon on this issue pan out to be true?

Note: Here’s another story detailing the finer points of the potential Google-Verizon deal.

Updates

August 9, 2010: Read my follow-up article on the Google-Verizon joint policy statement.

November 30, 2010: With recent concerns surrounding the ability of governments to seize control of domain names, the question of the desirability of ICANN to play a role in an open source Internet has been called into question. Read, P2P-Based DNS Seeks to Counter ICANN and Thwart Domain Seizures.

January 2011: With the recent uprisings in the Middle East, people have started to think about ways in which access to the Internet could be ensured to all people, thus removing the leverage that governments have to terminate communication to the outside world.

March 6, 2011: CBS has an interview with Eben Molgen on what he is calling the Freedom Box. This cheap device addresses some of the issues of control of the last mile that I discuss above. But as wireless signals travel very short distances, the Freedom Box can only create localized networks. The Freedom Box is basically a wireless router (which many people already own). It is not clear what additional functionality this device would add on top of a basic router, but presumably it would make creating mesh networks very simple, so simple that a user without much computer experience could do it with ease. Although Freedom Boxes would allow people to instantly create a massive network, they do not ensure access to an Internet connection which would allow communication with the outside world. Hooking up the last mile with the outside world would still be an issue.

My Related Articles

The HyperWeb: it’s All About Connections

The Web is Not (yet) Social

How the Death of Net Neutrality Effects You

Google-Verizon Joint Statement Presages End to Net Neutrality

Article Comments

  1. I share your concerns. I run a rented server on the Internet where I house my blog, a niche Internet store, a few discussion forums and a number of other sites for other individuals. It all runs on open source software. I have been able to experiment with a wide range of projects because the cost of failure is nil.

    The end of net neutrality could shut down all these enterprises or force them into the arms of giants such as Google. Moving my blog from my self served WordPress to Blogger would put me back into the fast line, but then they would garner so much more about me and my readers. I would be subject to any corporate censorship. I could move my store to Amazon where they would get a piece of the action. My discussion forum could migrate to Google Groups.

    The end result would force me into their marketing aggregation scheme and subject readers to their advertising.

    As an educator, I am alarmed at the tendency by edtech folks to herd their students into the arms of Google and such. Many have become unwitting shills for the large corporate forces that are on the cusp of total control of our digital lives–down to the rate of packet streams.

    Google’s assault on Network neutrality reaffirms my already existing distrust. I use very few Google “services.”

    Artist Miguel Brieva has created a poster supporting Net Neutrality that I think you would enjoy: http://internetnoseraotratv.net/en

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      Steve –

      Thanks for your thoughts and the link to the wonderful poster.

      I believe that one of the reasons that many educators point students to Google’s products and services is that they do not understand the differences between free services and products (like the ones offered by Google) and the freedoms provided by open source software. The two are not the same.

      Of course, it is hard to ignore the allure of free hosting which Google essentially offers for mail, blogs, discussions, and software development repositories. Although there are open source software packages that offer those services, they must be hosted somewhere. This costs time and money. I’m guessing that it is simply easier for an educator to point students toward Google and call it a day.

      It would be better for educators to work with their respective institutions to set up these services so that students could accomplish the same tasks without the need for learning to become dependent on corporate behemoths such as Google. Instead, educators should teach students how to find, install, and use open source tools. It will help them become independent users and entrepreneurs when they graduate.

  2. Johnny says:

    Howdy

    I believe you are right. Instead of ‘creating a facebook page’ I have gone off and built my own website based on open source servers and open source CMS. WordPress.

    It is an amazing experience to be able to harness the power of open source and help change the world.

    There is a positive to these massive businesses. They help deliver focus, and push forward technology and innovation to momentous advancements.

    Thanks for advocating an open internet.

    Cheers

    Johnny

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