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?