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What Net Neutrality Is (and what it isn’t)

You’ve heard about Net Neutrality, but you don’t quite get it. Or you think you do, but your nerdy friends keep saying you don’t. Or you unfortunately arrived here because you searched for ascii porn, and have no idea how Net Neutrality is related. This one’s for you.

The Fast Explanation

Net Neutrality is the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. And by “equally” we mean that different kinds of information on the Internet should all be delivered to the the end user without any regard for what kind of information it is. You ask, you get, and no one is standing in the middle saying “Actually, that info you wanted isn’t important enough for you to get it quickly.” Everyone who makes content available on the Internet can have it accessible to whomever wishes to view it (sadly necessary disclaimer: this applies only to content that is otherwise legal in your country, state, and district). Everyone who wants to view content on the Internet can ask for it and get it at the same speed as any other content. Kind of like how when you pick up your phone to actually call someone (I know, who does that anymore, right?), you expect the call to be completed and the person on the other end to be able to respond in real time, no matter who you are calling. Equal, two-way access, no matter who you are calling.

The Longer Explanation

If you’re not into the long, wordy explanations, skip this part and jump to the breakdown.

There’s a long history to this issue, and nerds like myself are often inclined to get a bit het-up about it and start throwing around a lot of terminology that sounds like it was sifted straight out of a sci-fi movie. But don’t stress; you probably like sci-fi movies, and just like the monologue by that nerdy scientist in your favourite, the jargon isn’t actually that opaque or hard to understand. This is, by the way, the point where you just said “Whoa, Doc, slow down and say that again in English.”

You bet.

The Internet wasn’t originally designed for you. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. The early proto-Internet was built for the US military, and then universities glommed onto it, and only later did businesses and then individual households start hooking in. This is important, because it means that it wasn’t built with you in mind. Unlike the idea of, say, the telephone (which was inherently personal), the idea of the Internet was that large organizations could collate and exchange information. Sure, there were individuals on each side of the line, but they were working for agencies, and it took a while before an individual came up with the idea of ascii porn and started putting it out there (like, pretty much until the first university got a connection).

What I’m saying is that there was no reason, in the beginning, to make sure the Internet was open and fair for everyone. Because the only people on there were the ones building it.

Once the plebes (read: us) got hooked in, though, things changed. We moved quickly from ascii porn and querying library catalogues and playing D&D in BBSes (see, I told you there’d be technical terms) to downloading actual pictures and uploading actual pictures and blogging about our dog. Now most of us carry around a computer with us all day long, and take for granted that we can research our interests, whether they be kitten videos or Wall Street portfolios, at the click of a button. A lot has changed, but the rules haven’t.

So naturally, the Internet Service Providers (those people you pay a fee to for your Internet connection every month) got the idea that there had to be a way to make more money off of this. And they realized, somehow, that most people already hate their Internet Service Providers (it doesn’t help that they’re usually your phone/cell phone/cable/satellite company, as well). So they started looking “upstream”. What we mean by “upstream” is those folks who build a website that provides the content you’re looking for. When you go to Youtube for kitten videos, Youtube is “upstream” from you. So is the Wall Street Journal, when you visit their site online. So is any Internet site you go to. And the bright idea the Internet Service Providers (let’s just call them ISP’s, OK?) had was this: we can’t charge more to the people going to websites, but we can totally charge more to the websites people are visiting. If they want people to not get bored waiting for their content to load, they’re just going to have to pay us a little extra.

And thus, a great controversy was born.

The problem was that the ISP’s were taking the “Cable TV” viewpoint, while the rest of us were taking a “Call My Friends” approach. And, honestly, here’s where the ISP’s got it horribly wrong: the Internet, unlike television, was never just a playground for those who could put together the time and money to produce a television program (don’t talk to me about public access; that’s a sacrifice cable companies were legally compelled to provide to justify their monopolizing of the system, and when’s the last time you watched a public access program?). Anyone with $10 and a little patience could build a website and get their ideas out to untold numbers of people. The people who built those websites did some amazing things: they enabled contact between people living in disparate cultures, the allowed direct trade between artists and art-lovers half a world apart; they opened discussion boards for scientists to collaborate, writers to share stories, children to have near real-time pen pals. And, of course, they enabled our currently near-debilitating fascination with cat videos. I’m not saying it’s all good.

But it’s a playing field where everyone, even in our currently over-saturated climate, has a chance of being heard. Of being seen. Of being made fun of for being seen. Of finding love, because someone was really sorry for you that everyone in the world was laughing at that video of you falling down drunk on your 40th birthday. Of starting a business based on the t-shirts you sold at your own (psychological) expense, commemorating the online proposal that redeemed your fate in the eyes of millions. You know, the Internet. It’s more than a two-way street.

But the ISP’s, thinking it’s more like Cable TV, thought they could start charging the “most wanted” websites more so that their content would get to you faster. Which means, effectively, that all those little websites get their content to you slower. And as we all know, 2 seconds in Internet time is approximately 20 years in real life. Imagine this: your friend sends you a link to a website where someone is selling their handmade whatsits. Your friend assures you they are amazing, the most beautiful examples of whatsits they have ever seen. You type the site name in your browser…and wait. And wait. One second….two…

Guess they didn’t pay their “fast traffic” fee. How much do you care about those whatsits?

The Breakdown

Here’s what Net Neutrality isn’t:

  • It isn’t the government trying to dictate what ISP’s can charge for their services. It is the concept that the government should prevent ISP’s from charging extra to some websites to get their content to users faster than other sites.
  • It isn’t the government preventing ISP’s from charging extra for extra services. ISP’s routinely already charge us on a scale related to how fast our Internet (ostensibly) comes into our homes. Net Neutrality applies only to the ISP’s charging content providers extra, and given that they claim they’re already delivering us content at the highest speeds we can afford, that necessarily means they will slow some traffic in order to prioritize those who can pay.
  • It isn’t excessive, unnecessary government regulation. Look, I’m as over the incomprehensible bulwark of legalese as the rest of you. But in a culture where a few large companies hold the cables that most of our Internet traffic runs through, and in a culture where we’ve by and large accepted the concept that corporations are solely for the purpose of generating profit for their shareholders, it’s actually a good idea to have a little regulation to make sure those corporations don’t quash all the little guys. You know, like we did with the telephone companies. Before we all started using the Internet, instead.

A Final Metaphor

Imagine your dog is vomiting all over your house, and you realize he may have just eaten that slice of chocolate cake you left on the coffee table. You rush to the phone and call your vet, only to be met with the following message:

“We’re sorry, but the number you dialed is not on our Preferred-Contact System. Please enjoy the following musak while we go about connecting your call. Or consider pressing “1” to bypass this message and be immediately connected to one of our Preferred-Contact Veterinarians. Your original call will be completed in 10…9…8…”

Now tell me, when’s the last time you went to the Internet to research a medical issue? Or the phone number of your vet?

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Growing Into Wonder

I hate surprises. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad, I prefer to know what is coming at me, so I can prepare myself to make the best of it or decide in advance whether fight or flight is the better option. I have known in advance what I was getting for my birthday since I was 12. I know that this would seem to indicate a stolid nature devoid of any sense of adventure, though I think few people would describe me that way. The thing about surprises is that they tend, in our complicated culture, to be the quick and dirty substitute for something far more meaningful and important: wonder.

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Sex Education Should Begin At Birth

One might think that in an evolved, educated, first-world nation, the issue of “sex ed” would have been settled long ago. After all, what could be more important than teaching children about their own bodies, and encouraging each individual to make responsible choices when it comes to reproduction? And yet, the debate continues to rage, in our homes and schools and on the national stage. How much information is too much? Does sex ed encourage children to have sex? Should we teach them about birth control? And recently the debate has extended to include the question “When do we start?”
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The Kali Principle

A great deal of emphasis is given in our stories to tales of magical creation. Wishes are granted, and the coveted item appears out of thin air. The birth of a child, in many religions, is the beginning of salvation. The creation of a building, or an artifact, or a concrete set of precepts is often the turning point where a tale of misery becomes a valuable lesson. As we go through our lives, working to live up to our own, personal, mythologies, we carry these lessons with us and aim to build and create that which will lead us to wisdom, happiness, and a sense of righteous fulfillment at the end of our time here.

Much less often is the power of death and destruction upheld as a step along this path. Usually, tales of death are only made meaningful when death is magically overcome, or serves the purpose of furthering a noble cause. Destruction is saved for the punishment of the guilty or as a catalyst for greater achievement. Something to be avoided at all costs, but if encountered, to be nobly borne and overcome. What we rarely hear are stories of the beauty and necessity of destruction as a meaningful, sacred thing in itself. The recognition that destruction is a crucial part of all our lives if we are to continue to grow, that death creates the fertile ground for new growth, seems to have been left behind with the harvest festivals and strange, heathen temples of the east. We are a people of creation and building, we never look back. We just continue to build up and out on the basis of what came before. But what if our foundation was built so long ago that the core is rotten? Can we continue to build external supports indefinitely, attempting to shore up that which wants to fall?

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What Does “I Like It” Mean?

Look…I work in website design.  I understand “social media” as much as any socially incompetent, RPG-playing, XKCD-following, yes-I-have-a-Spock-fetish girl can possibly be expected to.  But, can we be honest here?  I am flummoxed by the ‘I like it” phenomenon.

I think we can blame Facebook for this one, but it’s spawned well beyond the realms of that bubonic plague of a website.  The “tell me you like this” plea is everywhere, and I have no idea what I am supposed to do with it.  The words do not mean what they would otherwise seem to mean.  In the case of Stumbleupon, especially, a “like” will alter my future stumbling experience, it will also ensure that a site shows up on my “liked” list for anyone to see.  But whether I actually Liked it or not (as an emotional response, you understand) is only one tiny part of the equation.  What would Amy Vanderbilt do? * Continue reading

What Does The GOP Stand To Gain?

Fuckin' Boom. Photo by Mogmismo.

In the last few days, there has been a rash of reports commenting on the Republican Party’s apparent embrace of violent terminology. You can read about it lots of places, but in case you somehow missed it, here’s an example.

So there appears to be a trend, not necessarily amongst all Republicans (I still like to dream that there are a few fiscal conservatives cowering beneath the onslaught of Moral Imperatives Activists and Obama Is A Fascist lunatics), but certainly amongst some of their most prominent and loud-mouthed representatives. And the contingent of the blogosphere which likes to think of itself as Sensibly Liberal has made the predictable response: they’ve gone into mama-next-door mode and begun worrying about the future of the neighborhood. They’re concerned, and perhaps rightfully so, that one of these days some teabagger out there somewhere is going to stop throwing bricks through windows and pick up a gun.

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Open Letter To MoveOn

Dear MoveOn,

A year and a half ago, you asked me to choose which Presidential candidate MoveOn, as an organization representative of my beliefs, should support and promote. I chose Barack Obama, as did many other MoveOn members. So many, in fact, that he received your endorsement for the Presidency; support which undoubtedly had a significant influence on the election results of 2008. Barack Obama is now President, thanks to our hard work.

And the country has yet to see the Change and Hope upon which he based his platform.

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Something You Need To Know

I know there are a million issues we all worry about every day. It gets hard to decide where to put your time and money (if you have it to spare). Should you rescue the whales or the cheetahs? Should you support organizations fighting for your rights or the rights of others, folks overseas whom you will never meet but whose eyes gaze pleadingly out at you from the t.v. and magazines, telling you that just $15 a month could feed their entire family? The last thing you need is to hear about another noble cause that you might or might not have the energy and money left to help.

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People of the World: Please Stop

Yesterday I found myself explaining a curious thing to my son. He was wondering why H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t the most famous horror-writer ever, and I explained that he was a little too “out there” to ever garner a larger readership, until recently (admittedly, I suspect his readership is still not huge, but it’s growing). My son asked me why more people were reading him now. And so I told the tale of How Geeks Took Over The World.

Long ago, I told my son, when I was growing up, Geeks were forced to desperately cling to the lowest rung of the social strata.  “Really?” my son asked, horror showing plainly on his face.   Yes my love, I told him, it was a very hard time to be a Geek.  And I reminded him of several nightmarish episodes from my youth.  I then proceeded to explain to him how we took over.  How, with the advent of the Internet and computer games, suddenly we were the ones holding the keys to the kingdom.  You see, I continued, no one but the Geeks had ever bothered to learn how to write computer programs or play with hardware.  And so they found themselves coming to Us.

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A Quick Word On Burkhas

OK…so I’m a bit drunk. But tonight’s surfing brought me to a story of some girl who got arrested for her “too revealing” prom dress, and then an assortment of Hollywood “gaffes” wherein some starlet or other showed too much nipple, and finally I was compelled to do a search for “men burkhas” which, I can tell you, turned up no men in burkhas. So I just wonder:

1) How come it’s crazy when Middle Eastern religions say women have to cover up, but it’s OK when we do it here? It’s because it’s different bits, isn’t it?
2) How come Western culture is so sexually promiscuous, and yet a nipple is still headlining news?
3) How come anyone still cares about Britney Spears? [Note: you must follow above pattern of searches to understand this question]
4) Why does a search for men in burkhas turn up mostly naked women?

Perhaps they are not deep questions, but I sort of think they are.