Collaboration

Poll: Should the Internet become a public resource (like roads) paid for by taxes?

40 years after its birth, the Internet has become an indispensable resource to communication and commerce. But is it time to rethink who owns the Internet?

Two of my recent posts are driving a great discussion about whether the government should act as an Internet traffic cop during times of crisis--like a flu pandemic. The US GAO issued a report stating the government may need to block high-bandwidth sites to limit Internet congestion during a pandemic.

There are lots of questions around such action. First, there's no consensus on how practical or effective blocking high-bandwidth sites would be at fighting Internet congestion. Second, many high-bandwidth sites (such as those that stream video) are news outlets. It really doesn't make much sense to shut down a prime source of public information in the midst of a crisis. Third and perhaps most importantly, should the government have the legal authority to control Internet traffic?

In my original piece on the GAO report, I compared the government managing Internet traffic to local police departments controlling traffic on roads during large public events. Most citizens accept and even expect such actions on our roads, but feelings are very different when it comes to the Internet. As evident by comments like the following:

"Absolutely not under any circumstances should the US government ever block anything on the Internet. Let them monitor traffic all the way, but they should never ever be allowed to block traffic over the Internet." - Jeff7181

"Big Brother is flexing his muscles. One little step at a time, Big Brother will soon be telling everyone what they can do, all the time." - Larry.Barnhill

"Anything less than unfettered access, regardless of what politically correct reasons are given, is government overstepping its constitutional rights. Access to information is totally different from traffic control on the streets." - trading2

"Huge difference here - the gov owns the streets and I need a drivers licence to drive on them - the traffic is either controlled by police or traffic lights. I don't see that with the internet. Gov controlling the Internet - MY INTERNET??? Thanks, but NO THANKS!" - manzed41

It's manzed42's comment, that gets to the heart of the issue. Who owns the Internet? (I'm referring to the transmission and routing infrastructure here.) Unfortunately, the answer's a complex one. Between the backbone carriers, local ISPs, nonprofit organizations, governing bodies, and various government entities involved around the globe, no ONE entity owns the whole Internet. Yet, it's private businesses (the backbone carriers and local ISPs) that control most peoples' access to the Internet--so by extension I think it's fair to say these businesses "own" the Internet. But is this the way it should be? Should the Internet be a public resources, like roads--owned by the government and funded with tax dollars? Or, should the Internet be owned by private, mostly for-profit organizations and paid for by those who can afford to pay?

I throw these questions out to spark debate. I haven't made my mind up. What about you?

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

15 comments
Somewhiteguy
Somewhiteguy

I'm not a big, lets hand everything over to the government and just pay taxes on it. If they treat the internet like they treat our roads, we're in trouble. Can you imagine what issues will come up when you have to change addresses or have intermittent internet issues? Will I have a representative to talk to or do I have to go to the DMV? One good thing with having companies that need to make some kind of profit doing this is that they have to keep the prices reasonable. Once cities figure out they can just tax you more for internet because we're becoming more dependent on it... Ok, I'll get off my soapbox...

carsten.wurtz
carsten.wurtz

The internet is not something owned by or regulated by one nations governing body. It is in my oppinion something compared to the air or oxygen. It is for the whole planet. Therefor it should not be governed by one nations politicians nor by one nations private companies. It should be governed by an international group. An the internet does need governing. It is something about infrastructure. We all need the infrastructure to be governed. If for example the US again came under threat by terrorist, be that from within the US or outside the US. If they planned it right, they would be able to swamp the infrastructure quiet easyly by requsting a lot of high bandwith traffic. Now if these terrorist where of some sort very welthy, they perhaps could own a company which could allow the traffic on the net to be swamped. Would you then preffer that the FBI or other government body would not be able to control the traffic. I think not. But the internet is also devided up in to many toplevel-domains. All trafic on the .US topleveldomain should and could be governed by the US government. But the traffic of for instance the .UK TLD should be under the government of the UK administration. And not the US government.

ron.carlton
ron.carlton

An international body is best, as you state. But there is still the problem of what body controls it once it is inside a country. I don't trust corporations or government. Censorship in China and Saudi Arabia have been noted, but it can happen in a lot of ways even in the US or the UK that are subtle (like band width control and property rights control). It is a difficult problem. We need that international body to be a watchdog on what countries do with it inside their borders and at least help people understand how their government is compared to others.

fatman65535
fatman65535

For me the answer must be NO. All one has to do, is to look at the actions of the regime in Iran during the unrest this past summer. They made all kinds of attempts to stifle criticism of the election. Give a politician that power, and they will use it. Now, I do feel that some restructuring of the internet may be in order, WRT the way services are available to the typical broadband consumer in the US. For broadband, the usual delivery channels are: 1) cable, 2) wireless, (and if you are lucky,) 3) fiber to the home. Internet access via cable represents a problem, in that a customer can eschew the cable provider's (extra cost) video services, and utilize services from some other provider. That alternate provider may not charge for the content delivered to the consumer. This same argument can be extended to VoIP telephony. Cable operators WANT to "own the customer", and extract maximum ARPU from that consumer. Thus, it is in their best interest to "soak" the consumer as much as possible. This sort of arrangement is not always in the best interests of the consumer, especially for one who wishes only basic, but faster (than dial up) internet access. Wireless has similar issues, but one additional one when it comes to bandwidth. Since wireless spectrum is not "unlimited", it is obviously, a shared medium. Too many connections to an access point, and it gets overloaded. You also have 'back haul' contention to deal with. Like the cable operators, wireless operators want to get maximum ARPU from their consumers, and often promise more than they can deliver (hey Apple and AT&T - I am talking about you). Consumer frustration goes up, and at least consumers do have a bit more options with wireless once any contract expires. Satellite is slow, and expensive, and there are few operators, but for people in remote areas, it is the only option to dial up. Try doing an ISO download over satellite, and watch your download rate sloooow down. Those lucky enough to have fiber to the home (FiOS is considered synonymous with fiber to the home), figure that they have their cake, and eat it too; but that is not true. They have the same issues that consumers served by cable operators have - a desire to "own the customer". Thus Verizon, like the others, wants maximum ARPU from the consumer; and like the cable operators, it is not always in the best interests of the consumer. The problem is because the "last mile" network is owned by a company that competes with some content that travels over the internet. Thus, they have a conflict of interest when it comes to providing service at a reasonable price, and not take this exclusivity as an opportunity to gouge the consumer. I think that one way to solve this is to split up the infrastructure portion from content delivery. Separate the internet connection from the supplier of internet content. I do know, that is this even hits the table, a whole bunch of 'special interests' will be 'howling like hell'. They do not want to see their 'sacred cow' slaughtered.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Government is all about extending control. Each new bill and law open to mission creep and interpretation. Business is all about maximizing profits. Services are rebranded with costly additions and any choice that will benefit the customer or drive higher profits will be decided towards the latter. Worse still, the assumption is that the service providers are competing in a healthy market and that everywhere has more than one service provider to choose from. I don't know which is the lesser evil.

torofe2000
torofe2000

Government control is always the more evil. It turns into a disease that never stops growing once it gets in. Personally, I think the government controls too much now. It just throws our tax money on things thinking it will fix problems that weren't broken until government stuck their hands in it.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Exclusive contracts are everything else. The single most irritating line on my cable bill is the franchise fee. Where I live, I have two high-speed connection options: cable or DSL. The other end of town has three: cable, DSL, or fiber (the latter from the locally-owned telephone/datacomm provider who has yet to expand into my end of town). While on active duty, I lived in an area that at one time had five cable companies; that same area still has multiple providers. The current prices in that area run less than 2/3 what I pay and no franchise fees.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

Nick, We have problems here with roads to that I was unaware of before moving here. Yes we have had many roads fixed/reapired/completed with tax dollars but that sell out in Austin, the one we call govenor is selling us and our roads out by long term leasing our main highways to a company in Spain and with no restrictions on tolls. This means a spanish comapny can but roads already paid for by Texas tax dollars/citizens and then charge us any fees they want and without limit and there's no recourse because our govenor sold us out. Mark my word Rick Perry has seen his last term as govenor; he will not win again unless the powers that be find a way to eliminate all competition and put him up against someone even worse. Sadly it could come to that too because our Senator, Kay Bailey Huchinson is just as bad and worse in some cases because she pretends to be for the peeple. I imagine folks in South Carolina are more skepitical about whether the governement will use the money as it is intended more then being in protest of fixing roads via tax dollars.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Expensive though it may be. Here in South Carolina the only thing they hate more than government is taxes. Everybody complains about the condition of the roads, but nobody's willing to pay for maintenance or improvements.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

"The government should step in to assure there are no monopolies and that the playing field is level. Posted: 11/16/2009 @ 09:10 AM (PST) ~ @support..." The problem with that approach, watching for monopolies, is that most unethical and illegal big bussiness practices/participants have learned to woprk aroudn this thru teh use of duopolies. So instead of having 1 clear monopolistic player in a market you have 2 or more collaborating entities that can promote a monopolistic lik approach thru the use of duopolies that give the illusion of choice. Best example is the US Political system. From current everything from pop-culture to the news you;d think that the US political system consist of only 2 partys; the DOmcrats and the Republicans. The reality is that these 2 parties are more like the 2 opposite sides of a double sided coin. You get the perception of having at least 2 sides but in relaity there is little difference between the 2 when it comes down to what matters. Same with the corporate world. Anytime a true thrid arty alternative comes to market they are quickly bought out or detroyed thru other means. This of course does not always happen; some do make it. But more and more we are seeing the corporate worlkd engage in and get away with highly unethical practices. If the recent examples with the investment banks and their speculative practices with our tax money as a bailout buffer then I don't know what could be shown to better prove thsi point.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

"Europeans pay more than three times what we pay for fuel, but your reason for that is incorrect. The base price of the fuel itself is about the same there as it is here. The difference is in the tax rates, which are much higher in Europe. The taxes raised go to subsidize public transportation and for highway maintenance. ~ Posted: 11/16/2009 @ 05:15 PM (PST) NickNielsen" Our fuel taxes are also supposed to be used to subsidize items like our roads but our government officials really need that money for buying votes and paying off campaign contributors so we can't expect them to actually use those taxes to pay for these public items. Here in Texas the great one himself Prick Perry has found a way to help pay for the roads, sale out to overseas interest and let them manage the roads. Now granted these overseas companies are getting already completed (by citizen tax dollars) road projects to manage and there are no limits being put on how much these un0american based companies can charge citizens of Texas (in the form of Tolls) to drive on the roads they already have paid for but I'm sure Mr. Perry has our best interest at heart and so like a good citizen I'm choosing to watch my reality TV shows and let the professionals take care of me.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]Europeans pay neraly three times what we pay for fuel, but they should because they buy less.[/i] Europeans pay more than three times what we pay for fuel, but your reason for that is incorrect. The base price of the fuel itself is about the same there as it is here. The difference is in the tax rates, which are much higher in Europe. The taxes raised go to subsidize public transportation and for highway maintenance.

TNT
TNT

I think you misunderstood my post. Larger markets benefit from lower costs of goods and services. For example, Europeans pay neraly three times what we pay for fuel, but they should because they buy less. All of Europe would fit in the state of Texas. We have buying power because we are a much larger market. I was using this model to explain why internet access is more expensive in small towns than in major cities. I agree with you, however, in that businesses can get too big. The government should step in to assure there are no monopolies and that the playing field is level.

bsmi021
bsmi021

Have you missed the last two years? Yes i love that the us is a country running in a capitalistic manner but large companies do not save money! ATT, Comcast as a example that were trying to do the same thing when the feds stopped them, so if the feds NEED to use control just like a police department uses it control it should be fine.

TNT
TNT

As you noticed, the more competition there are the lower the prices. This argues for business control as opposed to government control. If the government "owns" the internet then there is no competition and they will raise costs (as happens with every bureaucracy). Large, more affluent markets will always have better options and better pricing of all goods and services. Government does own libraries, and last I checked libraries offered free internet access to everyone. This is enough of a "public option" for internet access, IMHO.

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