May 22, 2013
E-Speech: The (Uncertain) Future of Free Expression
Posted on Oct 28, 2008
Yet another hindrance to free speech and open communications online is asymmetrical access (the “A” in “ADSL”). Nearly all broadband ISPs—even in the age of YouTube, Skype and MySpace—offer downstream speeds (from the Internet to the user) that are much faster than upstream speeds (from the user to the Internet). This is a legacy of the cable networks’ origins in the unidirectional world of TV programming, and of the antiquated vision of the Internet as an “information superhighway” by which consumers would access information. Few people anticipated that Americans would be as interested in producing content as they were in consuming it, or that they might want to use video for communicating. So regulators failed to address communication to the Internet, and the original vision of the Internet became enshrined in industrywide technology standards. Today, most providers still use technologies that are downstream-oriented. A few new technologies (Active Ethernet, GPON, VDSL2) support high upstream speeds, but it will take years, and hundreds of billions of dollars, to upgrade all of our networks to use them.
Finally, free speech online is threatened by “walled garden” services and technologies, in which the ISP or wireless provider determines what content the user has access to, what software the user can install, and even what formats are permissible for encoding audio or video. Walled garden services for the PC had their heyday in the 1990s (remember AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy?), but we are only beginning to see the extent to which they will dominate the Internet on wireless devices.
A great example of a walled garden is Apple’s iPhone. Spending several hundred dollars to purchase one doesn’t give you permission to install the software of your choice or distribute software to other users. Apple has already used its power to block software providers attempting to compete with Apple’s own software, such as the e-mail application that comes bundled with the device. Even more worrisome, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has acknowledged that iPhones are equipped with a “kill switch” that allows the company to remotely delete applications from your phone. The company calls this a last-ditch security protocol to disable malware, but it comes at the cost of consumer control. Imagine if General Electric could remotely remove food from your fridge that it deemed unsafe. Now imagine that GE is also one of the top providers of meat, cheese and veggies to American supermarkets. Clearly, this is not a combination in the consumer’s best interest. (To be fair, most wireless phones have even more “walls” and less “garden” than the iPhone does.)
• User-owned or unmanaged networks with very-high-speed connections.
For the sake of argument, let’s dismiss the first of these as impractical, or at least unlikely in the current political climate. But how about the second?
In theory, you could buy a length of fiber optic cable (which can support tremendous symmetrical bandwidth over long distances) and run it directly from your house to the nearest Internet point of presence (POP). You then buy an electronic gadget for each end of the cable. You plug one gadget into your computer and the other one into the Internet. Now you can upload and download whatever you like, and there’s no ISP to tell you what you can or can’t do—or turn over your records to some inquisitive government agency.
Is this any more feasible than passing a bunch of laws opposed by telecom providers? Well, not exactly. It’s expensive, and complicated. It won’t work unless there’s also fiber at the POP. And what will your neighbor say when you run your cable through her backyard?
The solution would be viable if you were, say, a hospital with a lot of money and an IT staff and a need to upload and download gigantic medical image files. In fact, customer-owned fiber is a reality today for such large organizations. For smaller companies, however, “condominium fiber” may be a better option. Condo fiber providers install the fiber backbone and negotiate rights of way with the neighbors. Then they sell individual strands of fiber to their customers and collect a small annual maintenance fee.
For individuals, no such solution has been developed. But different organizations are inching toward it from different angles, and if we can take the best aspects of each approach, an e-speech solution might emerge. Here are four of the partial solutions being proposed:
• In Canada, CANARIE—the public/private organization that runs Canada’s advanced research network—is trying to jump-start a residential condo fiber project. Bill St. Arnaud, CANARIE’s chief research officer, asked residents in an Ottawa neighborhood whether they wanted their own fiber connections to the Internet; about a third said they did. He then convinced a business fiber provider to run a trunk line through the neighborhood, and to agree to run a connection to the nearest Internet POP for any neighborhood resident who could pay about $1,500. He also worked out a complex financing scheme (he calls it “green broadband”—don’t ask) to make the fiber easily affordable for those who can’t buy it outright.
At the POP, customers will have to connect their fiber to an ISP’s equipment. In theory, customers can choose among ISPs. But there’s a slight hitch: As of this writing, no ISPs have agreed to participate.
• Many Swedish cities operate publicly owned systems that work in ways similarly to the CANARIE scheme. These municipal fiber networks are open to any ISP—some have dozens of competing ISPs—and the operator will run fiber to any building where the owner pays for a connection. Individual homeowners finance their fiber connections by adding around $10 to their monthly mortgage payments (a better investment than granite countertops in terms of resale price). As in the CANARIE plan, customers can decide whether and when to install the fiber; once connected, they can change ISPs at the click of a mouse.
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