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E-Speech: The (Uncertain) Future of Free Expression
Posted on Oct 28, 2008
This model is starting to catch on in other European countries, such as the Netherlands. In the U.S. there are about 60 municipal fiber networks—some states allow them, others don’t—and a few have succeeded in attracting multiple ISPs. None of them, however, put the customer in charge of connecting to the network, even though customer-controlled fiber helps attract ISPs due to the low investment costs and high degree of customer loyalty.
• A company called Copowi (short for Community Powered Internet) was launched in 2007 as the first strictly “net neutral” ISP. It now offers broadband services in 12 Western states over DSL lines wholesaled by Verizon, AT&T and Qwest. Copowi promises not to block, degrade or modify data or to discriminate for commercial advantage on the basis of source or destination—with exceptions for necessities such as spam prevention and, of course, law enforcement. It also provides encryption for e-mail and Web surfing, both to help users protect their privacy and to make it more difficult for network owners to implement non-neutral access.
After a year in business, Copowi has about 4,000 customers, according to founding partner George Matafonov. Eventually it would like to partner with more network owners or even to build its own networks, but first it needs to develop a larger subscriber base, which isn’t easy for a niche player.
• New “mesh” wireless networking gear—which lets people share Internet access something like BitTorrent lets them share files—has made it easy and inexpensive to create decentralized networks. Wireless mesh networks are now being used in locations as diverse as low-income housing projects, Indian reservations and South African schools. Citywide (or nearly citywide) mesh networks are being built in places like San Francisco and Urbana, Ill. Internet access becomes much less expensive because neighbors can share a commercial DSL connection in the same way that co-workers in an office do.
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All of these efforts offer partial solutions to the problem of guaranteeing free expression over digital networks. Remember that the components of the problem we identified include unwarranted government intrusion; ISP self-dealing (net neutrality and the walled garden); and asymmetry. Looking at each of the solutions in turn:
Private condo fiber, if it ever exists, will solve the asymmetry problem nicely and give the customer some ammunition against ISP self-dealing. However, it will do nothing to combat government intrusion.
Public condo fiber (the Swedish solution) will face an uphill battle in the U.S., where phone and cable companies routinely delay municipal broadband projects with nuisance lawsuits and sometimes derail them altogether with legislation. However, when public fiber networks are built, they solve the asymmetry problem. And, if they attract competing service providers, they may help counter ISP self-dealing. Also, local governments may be able to stand up to unwarranted federal law-enforcement demands more effectively than private operators can, though the odds of this aren’t great.
Net neutral ISPs (such as Copowi) are a terrific solution to net neutrality and walled-garden problems, but they can’t address the asymmetry issue because they rely on existing network technology. This solution also fails to address governmental intrusions on privacy, because Copowi is legally obligated, just as AT&T, Comcast and the other large ISPs are, to cooperate with these intrusions.
Decentralized wireless mesh networks offer some hope of protecting freedom of communications within the network, if not between the network and the public Internet. As community wireless activist Sascha Meinrath writes, “What happens when a group of friends get together and buys a single line that is then shared among them? What happens when an apartment building buys a line and shares it? What happens when a community or neighborhood gets a line and shares it? … Who ‘owns’ an ownerless network? Because that (non)entity is required by [law] to provide surveillance capabilities on that network … [it] represents an unenforceable mandate.”
But wireless mesh networks are not well equipped to handle the other problems we’ve discussed. Because a wireless network can’t communicate with the Internet until it finds a wire, it is dependent on a single ISP. Ultimately it is limited by the ISP’s access speeds and network management policies.
In the meantime, keeping in mind our mantra of “e-speech,” we can continue to push federal regulators and access providers to support net neutrality and lower their garden walls, and we can continue to experiment with new models for community-owned and decentralized access. Most important, however, we have to remain aware of our civil liberties in the Digital Age, and to realize how easily—and invisibly—they can be removed.
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