Arguably the most pervasive technology in modern American life is the Internet, the worldwide meta-network that allows users to exchange information (data traffic) with, conceivably, any other device connected to that network. It is inconceivable for the average American not to have access to the Internet, which citizens use for so many day-to-day information, communication and entertainment purposes.
What you may not know is that the Internet you take for granted, the Internet on which you rely for countless reasons, the Internet that has changed your life and the lives of everyone on Earth, is subject to pressures that can cause it to fail you. Specifically, the Internet is subject to peer pressure.
Techworld.com reported on Halloween that a dispute between Internet Service Providers Cogent and Sprint has prompted the two ISPs to stop exchanging data traffic. This is a dispute over peering. WhatIs.com, as part of its definition of peering, explains that large ISPs that have their own backbone networks “agree to allow traffic from other large ISPs in exchange for traffic on their backbones. They also exchange traffic with smaller ISPs so that they can reach regional end points. Essentially, this is how a number of individual network owners put the Internet together.” That definition further points out that network owners and access providers “work out agreements that describe the terms and conditions to which both are subject. … Peering requires the exchange and updating of router information between the peered ISPs. … Peering parties interconnect at network focal points” in the USA “and at regional switching points.”
The dispute between Cogent and Sprint is by far not the first such peering dispute. Data Center Knowledge reported in March that Cogent had terminated a peering agreement with European broadband network Telia. The disconnection “makes it harder for customers using one network to connect to websites hosted on the other.” While “harder” is not “impossible,” the effect on data traffic and accessibility is real and, one presumes, must be measurable and perceptible for access to be “harder.” The article points out that “peering is often free as long as the amount of traffic exchanged is not out of balance,” but of course this is the sticking point. This issue is related to the Net Neutrality movement in that service providers may be tempted to limit, divert or otherwise interfere with the free exchange of data traffic based on the traffic levels involved (or on the ownership, source or destination of that traffic).
As much as I believe in individual liberty and as much as I oppose government regulation, there are times when government regulation is not only necessary, but also within the boundaries of strict construction of the United States Constitution. Infrastructure issues in which the rights of multiple individuals collide over public access to a common resource (which is intended to be common in its entirety) can only be resolved through appeal to a governing authority. This is why governments exist in a free society – to protect individual rights. If conflicts between individual users of a common resource (roads, drinking water, telephones, the Internet) cannot be resolved through the “spontaneous order” of those individuals pursuing their individual interests (a mechanism that works well for market pricing, but not as well for determining who can divert a water source, or prevent citizens from phoning from outside to inside a company’s telecom wire lines), a governing authority is instituted to preserve those individuals’ rights and to regulate access to that shared commodity. Such is the need where a neutral, freely accessible Internet is concerned.
The Internet as it now operates simply cannot exist if it becomes a technological archipelago of conflicting interests and refusals to communicate. If major ISPs cannot come to terms on data traffic exchange independently, they deny their customers access to portions of the Internet in a fashion that would be deemed completely unacceptable were the companies in question blacking out telephone service to sections of the country. For good or for ill, the Internet is now established, accepted and heavily used by the public at large. We cannot afford the loss of connectivity that comes with partial blockages or refusals of one network to communicate with another. The result is too much disruption of what has become a common resource, a shared commodity that is now infrastructure. That is the quality that makes the Internet more than the sum of its individual service providers, and that is what opens the door to regulation of Internet access in order to maintain a net-neutral data flow across the World Wide Web.
Clearly, given the protections of the First Amendment, which stand in stark contrast to the infringements on freedom of speech and even thought that take place in other technologically advanced nations (notably the UK and France), we cannot afford to have any industrialized nation but the United States overseeing this maintenance of free data transfer. While there are, even now, individuals within this country chipping away at our cherished freedoms, we remain the industrialized nation with the best protections on free speech. We are also arguably the nation that produces, at the least, a plurality of the worthwhile English-language content on the Internet. This meta-network is what it is thanks to America, and it ought to stay what it is with our oversight (and no one else’s).
It’s time the United States stepped in, and stepped up, to fulfill one of those rare constitutionally permissible, intellectually supportable and morally advisable functions it is empowered by its founding documents and by its consenting citizens to do: maintain neutrality and protect free flow of data traffic by preventing, through force of the duly enacted rule of law, the actions Internet Service Providers may take where the infrastructure of the Internet is concerned. Specifically, such technological interests should be prevented from engaging in arbitrary, precipitous or harmful acts that prevent free and open access to the network of networks they serve.