Pay Attention To The Future Of The Internet Today

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When you think about the Internet, what do you think about?

Google and Verizon in the U.S. came together to propose a new direction for both the Internet and the future of wireless connectivity that seems to be ruffling many feathers within the industry and among media and technology pundits alike. Before diving into this complex debate on so-called Net Neutrality, ask yourself this: Should everyone who has access to the Internet be entitled to access each and every website, blog and Twitter feed equally – at the same speed without being blocked or denied access?

Before answering that question…

Consider a news item titled, Finland makes 1Mb broadband access a legal right (CNet – October 14th, 2009). "France, one of a few countries that has made Internet access a human right, did so earlier this year. France’s Constitutional Council ruled that Internet access is a basic human right. That said, it stopped short of making ‘broadband access’ a legal right. Finland says that it’s the first country to make broadband access a legal right."

If countries throughout the world are now considering broadband Internet access a human right, we need to be thinking about the issue of Net neutrality now (and, perhaps, in a very different light).

The best definition of Net neutrality came out of a New York Times article, Internet Proposal From Google and Verizon Raises Fear for Privacy (August 15th, 2010): "a policy that would prohibit Internet service providers from exploiting their role in delivering information to favour their own content, or the content of the highest bidders." To translate: those who own the digital pipes, tolls and bridges can assign different levels of pricing and speed of access to the Internet. And you thought a two-tiered health-care system was a contentious topic for debate.

What’s been really irking the public is that Google – long a defender of Net neutrality and equal access for all, and a company known for it’s informal corporate mantra of "Don’t be evil" – is standing by their commitment to an equally accessible connectivity for broadband Internet access, but is now recommending that wireless connectivity be exempted. On The Google Public Policy Blog, Richard Whitt (Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel) states: "It’s true that Google previously has advocated for certain openness safeguards to be applied in a similar fashion to what would be applied to wireline services. However, in the spirit of compromise, we have agreed to a proposal that allows this market to remain free from regulation for now, while Congress keeps a watchful eye."

Think about what these many technology, telecommunications and media companies now know about you.

Google accounts for close to 80 per cent of all Internet-based searches. It also accounts for more than 95 per cent of all searches done on a mobile device. Many mobile devices now use Google’s Android operating system. This means Google knows every call you place. Google knows what you are searching for. Google knows which buttons you are clicking on. Google knows what your location is at any given moment. Let’s not forget about those who also use their popular email application, Gmail, or those who use their Web browser, Chrome.

Privacy isn’t just a problem for Facebook.

While Facebook and their privacy policies seem to be attracting the most media and public attention – because people don’t realize that by becoming a member of their online social network, they are – in effect – giving Facebook permission to publicly publish the content they put on there, think about this: how would you feel if all of the searches you were doing online (or on your mobile device) were made either public or were being used to target you better with advertising?

Many people tell a search box things they would not ever mention to their own spouses, children or parents.

Net neutrality is not a political play. Net neutrality is a business play. Both Google and Verizon are businesses (as are all of their competitors). There is no longer a mobile Web and a broadband Web – there is one line of connectivity. Because of devices like the iPhone, BlackBerry, Droid and beyond, people are just connected and online. The technological advances won’t finally lead us to a place where we have even faster broadband Internet access and an equally fast mobile Internet.

The endgame here is one line of connectivity, and the easy bet is on mobile.

Make no mistake about it, the real Internet of tomorrow is not the plug that runs from your computer into the phone jack or cable box. The real Internet is the untethered and wireless one. It’s the same Internet that Google and Verizon are asking to be exempted from Net neutrality. This is a little bit like setting up speed limits in 2010, but only making them applicable to those with a horse and buggy.

So, what are you going to do about it?

*UPDATE: since the writing and submission of this article, Google has revised some of its views. You can read more about it here: Google fires back at net neutrality critics.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. Great post Mitch. I’m glad to hear your voice on the topic.
    I certainly hope the U.S. (and Canada too) starts to view Internet connectivity as a basic human right like you point out. Google and Verizon’s “deal” wouldn’t stand a chance if that were the case.
    Think about how many small-town communities are skipping wired connection and going straight to wireless. This deal would create a civil rights issue for those in rural America if you ask me. They touched on that aspect just a smidge on TWiG and I think that is such an important consideration when talking about tiering service.
    Sad thing is, how many people in the general public actually see this as the issue that it is?

  2. Privacy and human rights issues aside for a bit, wireless access is so essential to many people’s lives these days that a tiered cost system can rightly be perceived as unfair and something that should not be allowed.
    On the other hand, the bandwidth for wireless data transmission is finite and I understand the carriers’ concerns about certain types of data or sites clogging the system and impacting services for other customers.
    As usual, both arguments are valid, but if it comes to legislation then the devil is in the details and how they are actually implemented. People and companies have a knack for finding loopholes and ways around laws, undermining their effectiveness and sometimes creating hardship for the very people who are meant to be protected.
    Human Rights 2.0?
    Right now we use handheld mobile devices. Fast forward a decade or so. Implanted mobile devices could be commonplace and wireless data transmission could essentially become a part of the fabric of human consciousness. Scary thought! But if it comes to that, and if we have a tiered system, then it could truly become a human rights issue.

  3. Mitch, “Many people tell a search box things they would not ever mention to their own spouses, children or parents.” Pretty heady stuff.
    I’ve made the “when Google becomes self aware, rules us all” jokes but I’ll admit I don’t know all the particulars of the net neutrality debate, and that’s one of its most inherent dangers along with apathy. People don’t understand, or don’t care to… happily posting to Facebook and Twitter from their smartphones. Thanks for putting this more on my radar, helping me make some sense of it.

  4. Is it just me or is there a slippery slope to Google’s argument that net neutrality shouldn’t apply to wireless in order to encourage investment in the infrastructure? While we all want to connect instantly, seamlessly, and with ease, we do do in order to access content. Content is king when it comes to the internet. So invest all you want in infrastructure, but if individuals don’t have confidence that their content can be easily accessed by all, then content dwindles, desire to access dwindles and you have invest in a “superhighway” that has no traffic.
    If I am going to tell a search engine things that I wouldn’t tell those closest to me, than I certainly want answers from it….ALL the answers…not those given preference…isn’t that part of the reason behind this behavior? We want answers other than those we expect to get from our close relationships. That too is threatened if neutrality goes away. So again, from a business perspective, that amazing ability to collect information for consumers dwindles right along with neutrality.
    My thoughts anyway. Thanks for the post Mitch.

  5. When newspaper circulation declines (I hope it doesn’t continue because I do still love printed media), we’re going to have to move quickly to get everyone online. This is (or will be) the place we go to for information. Think of it as newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and more… rolled into one. It’s not about TMZ… it’s about the place where we will keep our public records. The problem with letting mobile be free is what we’re seeing now: walled gardens and pay-per-play. This could be problematic in a big way.

  6. …and if we start getting the government involved, we run into all kinds of issues in terms of how fast we can move, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc… This is a slippery slope and although I’m not trying to choose sides, I do think that we can’t afford to have a “let’s wait and see” attitude with this one.

  7. I’d be lying if I said that I understood the entire complexities of what is Net Neutrality. That being said, I’m doing my best to keep treading water here. The key thing is to not lose sight of how important it is. Because, one day we’ll all turn around and the decisions will be made for us and they will not be undoable.

  8. It’s easy to go right down the rabbit hole and make those conclusions. Again, I love Google (great brand, I’ve spoken for their teams and I use their products). I also don’t think that Google is looking to to become SkyNey from the Terminator movies, but things are moving fast. They are paying a ton of attention to mobile and all of us – as a population and as consumers – need to be thinking about what the ramifications are of these decisions and how we the underpinnings of the Internet to work.

  9. We are on camera all day long. At the bank, the mall, the road, the gas station, the list goes on. We accept it and rarely ever give it a second thought. Our online behavior is monitored and we accept that too. But we all have a strange personal relationship with the Internet and perhaps many (I know I do, perhaps wrongly) that we’re just another IP address and no one is really ‘recording’ our activity.
    The U.S. Army’s social media policy clearly states “you are always on the record” which says it all.
    In the case of the bank, gas station or mall, we accept that they are filming us in case we steal or destroy something. But who gets to keep tabs on our behavior online? Well, as you point out, Google has a pretty good idea and they’re keeping records.
    It may be a strange comparison, but this issue reminds me of when business began to “own” portions of the human genome. Net neutrality, the environment or DNA can all apparently be bought and controlled – by someone else.

  10. Things are okay, but if these things adversely affect us in the long run, we are on a large crossroad.
    Big brother by George Orwell.. but not that much.
    We must think twice and choose, either join the crowd or create our own stuff.

  11. Basic human right? Really, you want to go there? If it’s your right to have Internet, isn’t it the responsability of others to provide it to you? Isn’t food more important than the Internet? It’s not a basic human right either.

  12. Someone recently said to me that this isn’t Big Brother at all… with all of us having the ability to record every moment in text, images, audio and video, in the palms of our hands, it’s the total opposite: we’re actually watching them!
    I love that thought.

  13. On my Media Hacks Podcast, Hugh McGuire made the point that Danny Sullivan (from Search Engine Land) talks about this point frequently. We all freak out about what Google (or Facebook or Twitter knows), but no one has any concern about what the credit card companies and banks know. They’re also using this data to sell to us and target us. Are they forthcoming about how they rent/lease this data?

  14. Recently, I spent a lot of time with people, who have no connection to the internet other than through their cell phones – to the extent that they don’t even think of it as “the internet.” They just think of opening an app or sending a message and don’t consider whether it’s an email, text, or IM. Would these people think much of it if, instead of AT&T having 200mb versus 2gb data plans, they had tiered speed plans or if their phone’s connection to Facebook was 10x faster than the connection to Small Website XYZ? Probably not because they are already geared to think that cell service providers have different rates for different offers, and they are accustomed to occasionally spotty or slow service. Despite that, it seems like that lack of knowledge on their part could easily lead them to somehow being disenfranchised, right?
    As one of your responses above says, I too feel like I am just treading water on this. I’m interested in the discussion. I want a free and open internet (even if I don’t know how expensive that could be to continually develop and maintain). And, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what I can do about it.

  15. When something is so big, we tend to feel helpless (think about poverty in our world or sick kids). It’s overwhelming. The issue – and you stated it pretty clearly in your comment – is that the average consumer probably doesn’t realize that using an app is the Internet (and it is). But that usage is closed and controlled.
    So, again, we need education, information and a clear-headed mindset.

  16. I see two worlds emerging:
    1) World one where google and the likes knows everything about you. You get niched news, product reports, updates about friends, scores and anything else that you’re interested in, in real time and geo-located to where you are.
    2) World two is the underground. Where big money is made around protecting and becoming anonymous in a world that watches and knows our every step.
    With the prevalence of reality shows, were we just having a vision of what our lives are going to be like?
    And as we judge Snooky from Jersey Shore is there someone going to be judging you and everything that you do?
    Will it effect your chances for a job, a mortgage, or to go on vacation in another country?
    Very interesting times.

  17. World #1 – makes our own – personal world – that much smaller. We tend to forget the power and importance of serendipity. If we filter everything down to our likes, how do we expand our world? Our content and view will only become smaller and more narrow.
    World #2 – people are dismissing the growing trend/power of anonymity (especially online). For more on that and my thoughts, go here:

  18. I don’t understand how Internet access becomes a right. That seems to imply we’re entitled to computers and mobile phones, the access devices.
    Net neutrality is essential. That means elimination of bandwidth throttling. The Internet is like electricity. We expect access without restrictions on what we plug in. That allows freedom and innovation.
    The Internet providers get to impose whatever restrictions they want. For instance, my access is 25 Mbps. I’d like to upgrade to 50 Mbps but cannot without a TV package.
    I hope that Google won’t become evil …

  19. I’m sorry but looking at the internet as a legal or human right is a little ridiculous…
    The problem I’m seeing (and it’s not just the internet – it is with most things in society today) is people have no patience. They want everything now and they want it free. On top of that, governments want to keep everyone safe and everything fair… and on top of that – companies need to make money in order to stay a company.
    So let’s break this down.
    People have no patience and they want everything now and they want it free:
    In my opinion, this is perfectly fine on its own. Consumers run the market. Consumers are the reasons businesses are in business and governments are governing. The problem comes into place with the structures of our counties and the power we give governments and the power our governments give companies.
    Governments want to keep everyone safe and everything fair:
    Because of this they feel the need to control and regulate absolutely everything and everyone. When they do this, their decisions impact the end users and the ripple effect starts – it creates unintended consequences across the globe.
    Companies need to make money in order to stay a company:
    Since this is the case – companies need to make decisions and help influence government decisions that are going to be in their best interest. When companies as big as Google have so much at stake with decisions like this, they cling on to the even more powerful government to influence their decisions. In the end these decisions most likely won’t be in the best interest of the people.
    So what should we do?
    To me it’s simple. If we didn’t give the government the power to influence the future of the internet then we’d be free to shape its future ourselves through our decisions and actions. And what does that mean?
    It means that the next time a company like Comcast acts in a way that’s unfair – we as consumers need to choose their competitors as our new providers. We need to speak out against them and support innovators that provide solutions that are fair and in the best interest of all society. We don’t need to write in stone the guidelines – we need to act with our morals. And with that you’ll have the most open, fair and innovative web you could possibly imagine.
    We need to learn to be patient enough for our actions to provide justice rather then trying to force justice and fairness.
    The topic is so much bigger than just the internet – it’s our entire market place and the structure of our governments.
    Thanks for taking this topic on Mitch

  20. There are some really big challenges that you bring out in your comment – thank you. One of them is how do all of the pieces work together? If we move (or are moving) to a digital-only world, we do need to make sure that basic and life-saving information (like how to get a H1N1 injection) can be communicated to one and all.
    I don’t think that making the Internet a human right is crazy at all. It makes a ton of sense to me. But, then again, people thought I was nuts to be publishing content online in the early nineties too…

  21. I’m not sure that it means we’re entitled to computers and mobile phones. I am sure that it means we’re all entitled access to information.
    Again, this is all new, strange and weird, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it feels this way to us.
    For years, I’ve been saying that we should not be benchmarking the growth of the Internet in relation to television, but rather in relation to electricity.

  22. my fear is – you make it a right and you introduce government. When you introduce government you’ve just made the first step in the opposite direction of an open web. Any instance where I’ve ever witnessed government involvement I’ve noticed red-tape, corruption and control… not what I think we’re all hoping for – which is an open web available to all.
    I want the same end goal as you – i just think there’s a much cleaner and more simple way to accomplish that.
    And that’s one of the problems I find with our society. When we want something we seem to go to the government to provide – rather then doing things ourselves. It’s the way we’ve been raised – it’s a fundamental fault we have and one I hope will change one day.

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