2007-08-07

On the "Digital Civil Rights" Movement

The Yearly Kos Conference is holding a panel on net neutrality and other issues which are more and more often being grouped under a new banner of "Digital Civil Rights". I agree with many of the points being raised, but calling this a civil rights issue, I think, is misleading, in that they are trying to evoke ideas of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. This has little to do with equality in treatment, and everything to do with an aging government failing to come to grips with the new, digital age.

They even tried to make it about racial equality, noting statistics that minorities frequently use the internet on mobile phones rather than on computers. This isn't about racial equality. It's about giving the lower classes fair access to our new, digital world. And while it's still true that minorities are disproportionately in the lower classes, that's a completely unrelated issue - and, in my mind, a much more important one, and one we've been battling for decades.

But I'm not here to talk about racial or sexual equality. I'm here to talk about the failure of our government to keep up with the fast-paced advancement of technology in the digital age. This nation invented the modern computer, and the internet, yet while we trip, stumble, and fall, other developed nations have taken this new technology and hit the ground running. The US is ranked 14th among nations in broadband penetration. Broadband here is more expensive than almost any other developed nation, it's slower than in other developed nations, and it's available to less of the population. Not coincidentally, the US is also the only developed nation without a national broadband deployment policy.

We have in this country the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) going on a vast crusade against their own customers, bringing countless illegitimate and frivolous lawsuits to bear against hundreds of people nationwide, demanding obscene compensation for infractions that, quite often, never occurred. Unfortunately, the RIAA has enough political power to keep their witch-hunt going on unchecked.

We have in this country a deeply-entrenched broadband duopoly, again with enough political weight to keep themselves in power into the foreseeable future. They have little to no incentive to reduce prices, increase speeds, or widen deployment into rural and low-income areas. Monopolies and duopolies are a free-market failure that hurt the consumer in countless ways, limiting innovation and elevating prices. And, should they decide to start bringing to bear their threats of bandwidth shaping for the highest bidder, there will be no free and neutral alternative for internet access.

Don't think it's an issue? Look at Japan: 50Mbps DSL is available for $35 per month, 100Mbps fiber is available for $50, and 1 Gbps service over power lines is available for $90. I'm currently paying $43 for a paltry 6 Mbps, and I'm lucky to even have such "high" speeds available in my area; the majority of DSL customers in America are limited to 1.5 or 3 Mbps service, if DSL service is available at all.

So why are things in such a sad state in the country that originated the digital revolution? It's very, very simple: wretched companies with no concern for the consumer have far too much power, and the people have far too little. Is there a simple solution? Of course not. The unchecked political power of big corporations is a staple of American politics, and I don't see it changing any time soon. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are on the take from Big Business, leaving voters to choose the lesser of two evils.
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