Opposing net neutrality threatens the viability of open source communities

The good news is that the open source community can support net neutrality and alternate options for accessing the internet.
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The net neutrality discussion is, at its core, about free speech on the internet. Free speech online is a driving force for the online community; an average of 1.32 billion people each day share their voices on Facebook alone (as of June 2017). It's possible to be heard as well, with more than half of Americans using the internet as their primary source of information. Unfortunately, internet service providers (ISPs) want their own say in how free speech actually is online, with some claiming their own rights to free speech when it comes to what people can access.

ISPs are serious about their free speech claims when it comes to net neutrality. Several ISPs and telecom associations have filed briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals arguing that net neutrality prevents them from favoring their own services in order to send their own message. ISPs aren't wrong in that part of their brief, however, because net neutrality does require ISPs to deliver all websites the same way, without any sort of paid prioritization or throttling.

Research from Microsoft suggests that slowing down a website by just 250 milliseconds (the blink of an eye) makes users more likely to use a competing service.

The idea of a telecom exerting editorial control over what parts of the internet can be accessed is deeply concerning. ISPs are not only a gateway to information, but many of them happen to own their own outlets which provide information.

Violating net neutrality gives ISPs control over who can be heard, what can be accessed, and (potentially) what opinions can be held, and it isn't necessarily obvious when they do. Research from Microsoft suggests that slowing down a website by just 250 milliseconds (the blink of an eye) makes users more likely to use a competing service, even though the speed difference is too small for humans to consciously notice.

Open source intersection

Such things could change the open source landscape drastically. Although open source software powers much of the modern world, with 78% of companies running open source software in 2015, that doesn't mean projects won't feel the effects of a more restricted internet. While larger organizations such as the Apache Foundation or Mozilla might fare okay in a world without net neutrality, smaller projects could be drowned out by ISP restrictions.

Even those larger open source communities might find themselves becoming niche if they're overshadowed by larger companies that can afford to sponsor data or exist in faster tiers. This could cause companies or individuals that would be otherwise willing to support free and open source software (FOSS) to choose a proprietary option due to better access.

Zero-rating, ISP agreements, and throttling are already making this a possibility, with a big-name ISP recently caught throttling Netflix, and Netflix making agreements with ISPs to place servers on their networks for better performance. It's much harder to argue for open source options when they come with an extra toll. This works in the reverse also, by making it harder to make meaningful open source contributions due to worse access, restricted reference materials, and limited data. Lack of competition in the ISP market may mean that, for most, a more FOSS-friendly option doesn't exist.

The good news is that the open source community can support net neutrality and alternate options for accessing the internet. Projects such as Tor, VPN technologies, and proxies make it harder for ISPs to track and restrict internet traffic, although they don't avoid data caps. Other projects, such as community-developed mesh networks or municipal internet can provide more options for unrestricted access to the internet. Successful municipal networks have been developed in at least 500 communities in the United States (as of June 2017), including the often-cited Chattanooga, Tennessee, network. Community-owned mesh networks such as PittMesh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or the Commotion tool could operate on a wide scale with enough participants. Should net neutrality be overturned, these projects may be an essential part of getting online.

This isn't the first time we've had a discussion about net neutrality. The breakup of the Bell telephone monopoly was one major net neutrality battle that was fought and won, resulting in Title II and the phone network we're accustomed to today. Cable TV was a net neutrality battle that was lost, giving us the cable networks—and their ability to drop networks that don't agree to their terms.

With strong net neutrality regulations and alternate options for accessing the web, the internet can stay a place where freedom of speech reigns. If we don't fight for net neutrality now, we'll see shrinking online communities, fewer choices, and less ability to make ourselves heard.

This was originally published on software engineer Nate Levesque's blog and is republished with permission.

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Nate Levesque is a software engineer, independent author, and digital rights advocate. He writes about technology and digital rights, including his blog, his books, Please Upgrade for Access and The Thought Trap, and has written for Opensource.com. Nate holds a degree in software engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and builds networking products at his day job.

4 Comments

Another view. Net neutrality is about who is paying for what.

https://market-ticker.org/akcs-www?singlepost=3423775

The last couple of days have been so-called days of action on so-called "Net neutrality" and now a veritable trove of large "consumer" corporations have joined the fray -- Amazon, Facebook and (of course) Netflix among them.

It's time to cut the crap on all of this -- every one of these firms simply wants to shove their costs down your throat, whether you use their services or not.

That's what this is really about, you see.

That's an interesting take on the situation, but it's not accurate.

Every company is interested in maximizing profit and minimizing expense. So, yes, these companies that are lobbying for Net Neutrality are concerned about themselves rather than you. However, this by itself does not prove that your interests would be better served without Net Neutrality.

People thinking about this issue should be aware that Net Neutrality is what we've always had up till now. The rules about it are to prevent things from changing rather than to change things.

The post is rather so much nonsense because the only costs of infrastructure to the ISP are the costs of its customers, not Netflix's ability to upload content (unless Netflix is one of their customers). The infrastructure being in place at the ISP's end is necessary for the customers to get low latency, high bandwidth connections for whatever use they want to put them to, not just Netflix. If the customer doesn't want any service or use of the Internet that requires this, he is welcome to go to a lower tier of service right down to a dial-up connection if he wants.

Yes infrastructure to support everyone who wants to stream video over their network connection is expensive to the ISP, but that expense is unavoidable unless the ISP expects everyone to just stop wanting to stream video and settle back into their cable TV service (actually that would be just fine with most ISPs, because then they get to make their extraordinary fees on cable TV service).

The ISP who wants to charge Netflix for all the data that they upload can already do that. This does not make it so consumers have to foot a bill for services they don't need. That's so much nonsense.

The real issue is that ISPs want to replace the revenue they are losing from cancellation of cable services. The monopoly that the cable industry has enjoyed in this country for so long is finally losing its effectiveness. As long as Net Neutrality continues, ISPs can only charge you for the amount of data you pay for access to, rather than charging you based upon what data is available to you. That burns them up because that's how they've been making huge profits for the last forty plus years.

If you really believe that the person on that Web site has no bias about this issue, then I might have bridge or some land in Florida on the market that could interest you.

In reply to by jymm (not verified)

In the US, money is going to determine the direction of policy - which means unless Amazon et al., win this one - the options for the little people are going to be with community-developed mesh networks or municipal internets -- both of which will be direct competitors with the ISPs....who may want to think carefully about the end game of this war as there is no question which team is playing for the best interests of the population (regardless of their motives).

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