Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Net Citizenship and You

Food For Thought: Wouldn't you rather your master be you?

I'm going to have to lay out an unfamiliar thesis: You, fair reader, are almost certainly not on the internet. Not really. You are a second class citizen who is not allowed to make many of the most basic decisions that full members are free to make; you are a dependent of your modem and the wireline owner it is connected to. Generously: you are a client of AT&T or Cox or ____ (your local duopolist here). Less generously: you are a second class citizen of the internet allowed only the access that Big Daddy allows you. And Big Daddy, as in Tennessee Williams' play, is more interested in wealth and power than he is the welfare of his dependents.

Full citizenship on the web can be defined simply enough: full citizens can use their connection in any way that they want. They are independent actors who are free to make available or view anything.

That's not you.

Take a look at your TOS (Terms of Service). Cox and AT&T's, for instance, do meaningfully differ. But they agree about the essentials that concern us here:
1) You are the client, clients of clients are forbidden; you may not distribute service to others,
2) You can't talk bad about Big Daddy, (e.g.: Customer is prohibited from engaging in any other activity, whether legal or not, that AT&T determines in its sole discretion, to be harmful to its subscribers, operations, network(s). This includes ... or which causes AT&T or the AT&T IP Services to be viewed unfavorably by others.)
3) Free speech? No sucha thing. They get to say what you can say. (e.g.: "Cox reserves the right to refuse to post or to remove any information or materials from the Service, in whole or in part, that it, in Cox's sole discretion, deems to be illegal, offensive, indecent, or otherwise objectionable."
4) No Free Enterprise. You can't sell things, for that you need the master's special permission and a (higher-priced) service, regardless of how much traffic you use,
5) It's not your connection. "Unlimited, always-on" connections are both limited and subject to an abrupt end. AT&T is bizarrely vague while Cox gives clear limits--which are seldom enforced. It's not your connection; you need to remember that.
6) Your client status is a privilege, not a right. They can kick you to the curb at any time using whatever rationale seems most useful at the moment. (e.g.: Customer's failure to observe the guidelines set forth in this AUP may result in AT&T taking actions anywhere from a warning to a suspension of privileges or termination of your Service(s). ...AT&T's decisions with respect to interpretation of the AUP and appropriate remedial actions are final and determined by AT&T in its sole discretion.)

7) Lucky 7 Laigniappe clause: Masters don't have to follow the rules, only clients. (e.g.: AT&T reserves the right, but does not assume the obligation, to strictly enforce the AUP.)
You are in a master-client relationship with your network provider. You are NOT a full citizen of the internet. Your "location," your IP address belongs to someone else. They have an assured, static IP. You do not. As long as they own that property you are dependent upon them and they can dictate the terms of that use.

Be aware that this is not the way it was supposed to be. The internet, right down to its IP core was designed around your freedom to connect.

One way of looking at network citizenship is through the lens of internet protocols and the operation of "the end to end principle." From wikipedia:
The end-to-end principle is one of the central design principles of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) widely used on the Internet as well as in other protocols and distributed systems in general. The principle states that, whenever possible, communications protocol operations should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resource being controlled.
That's a mouthful. Translated: The internet is designed as a transmission device that is supposed to be controlled by those on ends of a communication. You and the person at the other end. A request from one end is simply passed on to the other end—no single positive, centrally-controlled "circuit" exists. No controller stands in the middle. This is in contrast to the underlying design of the phone network with its centralized circuit switching system that designates a circuit for you and holds it open. (We're talking about protocols, now....not physical implementation or the practical experience of users.)

Net neutrality battles are raging around the edge of this nascent war. We want to be full citizens of the new order. The incumbents would prefer that we be clients, vassels, and that they be the masters. Right now they are winning. Right now few of us even realize that current order is not necessary or natural—it was arranged for somebody else's benefit; not for ours.

It really is that simple.

What we need to recognize is the nature of the war. What we need to be fighting for is ownership of our own connection. For full citizenship. To kill the Master-client relationship that constrains our current access to the network.

Ownership of the network is the most complete solution. Any limits we impose on ourselves are limits that we impose; they are not the dictates of the master. We may start out copying what we know in some ways. But that won't last.

Lafayette, with its community-owned, fiber-based network utility is a good example of how that will work. From the begining things will be different here. We'll have static IP addresses...and a lot of potential will flow from that. We'll have full access to the speeds and capacity of our own network--that is what the 100 meg intranet is all about. As it becomes more and more obvious that many of the limits imposed by the current owners are not natural and not in the interests of users we'll change those aspects as well.

That's the real value of the battle fought and won here in Lafayette.

Worth thinking about...

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