(Photo courtesy of Hades2k on Flickr under CC license)
(Photo courtesy of Hades2k on Flickr under CC license)

By WALTER KENNEDY, Guest Columnist

Freedom of speech is a right that allows people to say what they choose without fear of negative repercussions; however, the freedom to hear what is being said is often overlooked under this protection.

This freedom of speech is useless without the complementary freedom of access, to receive what is being said. It is this freedom of unrestricted access to information online that currently under threat from internet service providers.

Free and equal access to information for all users is the defining characteristic of the internet. Of all the ways to communicate information, the internet has the lowest barriers to entry for content producers. With very little resources, an individual can produce content with the potential to reach a global audience. It is this characteristic of near universally flat playing field that has made the internet a vital tool for free speech and democratic movements internationally.

The Achilles heel of the internet has always been, and still is, the internet service providers (ISPs). These are the companies that own and control the networks upon which the information flows. They are the gatekeepers who control the access to information for consumers and businesses. . Due to the massive capital investments in infrastructure that are required to operate the internet infrastructure, they operate as controlled monopolies under government regulation, which means most consumers have few if any choices.

Internet service providers are currently restrained in their attempts to block access to content through the Federal Communications Commission Broadband Policy Statement of 2005; however, there are questions to whether or not this addresses mobile devices or access tiering.

Access tiering is proving preferential bandwidth to specific content selected by the ISP, essentially charging the content provided a fee to allow consumers to access their content at a faster speed. This fee to the content provider would be in addition to the fees already charged to consumers for internet access.

Currently the scheme of tiering has been prevented by the FCC’s rules on access; however, it is unclear whether or not these rules apply to mobile devices and mobile internet. The significance of this is that mobile internet traffic is the fastest growing segment of internet usage as a percentage of total internet traffic.

Government regulation has forced ISPs to base their business model on subscriber fees from consumers; however, the evolution of technology is outpacing the current legal protections. This has lead internet service providers to push for a commoditization of bandwidth capacity targeting mobile web users. Mobile internet is a newer technology compared to hard line internet connections, such as broadband and dial-up access, which means content is not as rigidly protected.

It is my opinion that network neutrality needs to be enforced online for all content and all users regardless of their method of access to the content. Preferential service should not be given to any content, and content providers should not be forced to pay fees for a faster connection speed with their audience.

Mobile internet access on internet access combined with the business drive to maximize value has continually led to companies attempting to commoditize bandwidth capacity which would destroy net neutrality.

If internet neutrality cannot be assured not only will it have devastating ramifications on free speech and democratic movements globally, but it will undermine and destroy innovation in all sectors of industry dependent on internet based commerce.

The cost of the fees imposed by ISPs on content producers will either be passed on to consumers, for companies that sell physical products, or cripple internet based media companies destroying innovation.

Heavy bandwidth consuming companies such as Facebook and Google would have a hard time surviving in an environment where their connection speed with their audience was limited. Companies such as Amazon, which depend on high product volume at razor thin profit margins, would have to raise prices to purchase bandwidth driving away customers.

Network neutrality is essential for democracy, unless you feel that your internet service provider would be fair and equitable commoditizing internet bandwidth capacity for their own purposes.