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An essential component in retrieving and disseminating vital information is obtaining access to it in a free and transparent manner. For the public sector, this rule has governed much of how government manages its information. However, for the Internet world wide, these rules are still evolving. The Chinese government provides one example of managing large scale control of Internet access. Censorship of Internet access appears to be fairly widespread. As citizens seek unfettered Internet access, governments struggle to balance access with control. Citizens in the United States want Internet access to remain free and uncensored. As public administrators, we need to better understand the role of market place power in free and uncensored Internet access.
Diverse and content rich websites are abundant these days—web tools have become more sophisticated thereby enabling more useful and immersive applications. The Internet has maintained a state of perpetual growth for some time. Newly established content providers like Google have managed to leverage a single product –Google Search—into a vast and fully integrated eco-system of web tools (Gmail, Drive, Maps, etc.). These tools are widely available and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
Companies like Google and Amazon serve billions of customers daily. These systems operate within the confines of bandwidth—that is: bits of data either transmitted via wireless cellular radios or traditional pipes. In other words, Internet companies are dependent on Internet Service Providers (ISP) and cellular operators like Verizon to deliver Internet content to the consumer. This position gives ISP’s and carriers a privileged opportunity to selectively determine the nature of such content. Filtering content for whatever reason would no doubt result in a sheltered variant of our current Internet. The selective determination of content regardless of motivation restricts the availability of content that could be accessed. Much of what makes the Internet so fundamental in our existence is its promise of universal access to information. Fulfilling this promise makes the principle of neutral and open Internet access essential. This is where network neutrality emerges.
Network neutrality, in the most practical sense, is best understood as the idea that public information networks should aspire to allow equal distribution and accessibility to all content, sites, and platforms. In 2011, the FCC officially agreed to a set of rules regarding implementation of net neutrality. The Federal leadership on this effort supports the concept of allowing Internet content to flow fairly freely.
One option that is on the table is the use of common carriers (publicly owned assets that function to serve the common good). Free and neutral access via a common carrier may contribute to a more socially just Internet, where online content is distributed and accessed equally for anyone, irrespective of fiscal resources. While having less specialized service providers may be a great equalizer, this potentially constrains private enterprise and negatively affects market place economies . Google offers a position on the matter, in essence, a warning call against private sector control over Internet information.
You may ask yourself: doesn’t Google ultimately get to decide which content is shown? The simple answer is not really. Although Google owns the algorithm that determines what content is appropriate, ISP and Mobile broadband operators own the last stretch of the content being transmitted, which means they have the last say on what content is ultimately delivered. The extent to which ISP’s and Carriers can dictate online activity doesn’t stop at filtering search results. They can throttle the overall speed of watching videos and loading specific webpages in favor of pushing their own video or web service—like slowing the speed of Google Maps to encourage customers towards Verizon’s own VZ navigator.
This is where the public sector role must be considered. When does the public sector step in and when does it let business move forward? The answers are not clear. The White House has recently established the Internet Policy Task Force in the Department of Commerce. Global free flow of information is one of the key initiatives this multidisciplinary group is charged with reviewing. Further, in 2011, the White House joined with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to uphold its commitment to the Internet as an “open, decentralised platform for communication, collaboration, innovation, creativity, productivity improvement and economic growth.” U.S. progress in free and uncensored Internet access is fundamentally linked with that of many other countries around the globe.
This then is the crux, how will the U.S. public sector facilitate this access? At the federal level, government officials (FCC) may be charged with regulating how content is delivered online. At the local level, municipal governments are struggling to provide publicly owned Internet access to their communities.
Clearly, retrieving and disseminating information via the Internet in a free and transparent manner is not as simple as stating that common carriers deliver the public good. Market place factors and national differences around the globe constrain access every day. As public administrators the decision is ours to consider- is Internet access a private good or a public good? It wasn’t long ago that electricity in the United States was facing this dilemma. How legislators and administrators work with the private sector in answering this question will define the future of information access and transparency in this country. The impact of our decision will ultimately ripple around the world.
Authors: Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Director, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology, Pace University, Alex Quinonez, Undergraduate Research Assistant, Pace University Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute. Contact: [email protected]