Universal broadband should be about control, not just access.

What's to come?
Aug. 15 2011 2:42 PM

In Defense of the Internet Craftsman

Universal broadband should be about control, not just access.

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This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

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In effect, mobile carriers have created a second-class Internet connection. This spring, Verizon demanded that Google remove free tethering applications from the Android Market so that it can charge users a monthly fee to turn their smartphones into mobile hotspots. Combined with restrictive data caps—often a low two to five gigabytes per month (for comparison, the typical Blu-ray disc containing your favorite movies can hold 50 gigabytes of data)—mobile connectivity severely limits user options.

This is deeply problematic, because craftsmanship requires not just use but control of a technology. Mobile networks disincentivize users from adapting or sharing improvements; just to have the same functionality they have on wire-line networks, users must break their providers' terms of service and acceptable-use policies. When compared with the freedoms still present on other types of broadband connections, mobile networks' demands offer fewer opportunities to think differently or to innovate. This is particularly problematic because it disenfranchises those (such as minorities, people in lower income brackets, and young adults) who are more likely to depend on smartphones to access the Web. In fact, Pew Internet and American Life Project found that smartphone ownership is highest with minorities, and nearly one in five young adults only access the Web on mobile networks. The increasing limitations on the Internet craftsman means these groups do not have a voice in how the Web evolves.

In marked contrast to what's happening domestically, U.S. foreign policy embraces the Internet craftsman as central to protecting human rights. In February, a year after announcing "Internet Freedom" as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech describing the Internet as a critically important public sphere. WikiLeaks caveats aside, the State Department has actively supported technologies that place the tools of communications in the hands of the general public worldwide—for instance, by funding Commotion, an open-source, mobile, ad hoc networking platform. (Disclosure: Commotion is an effort lead by the Open Technology Initiative, a project we work on at the New America Foundation.) By creating "device-as-infrastructure" networks that connect gadgets like cell phones and laptops directly to one another, network participants don't need any central infrastructure to communicate—creating opportunities for entirely new applications and services with a community-wide intranet. In enabling local area networks, technologies like Commotion open new avenues for an Internet craftsman to ply her craft.

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In Gutenberg's era, the printmaker, not the machine, determined the subject matter of his work. No printing press could impose terms of service that dictated the language or content that could be printed. Instead, the craftsman was in full control of his speech. Yet these restrictions are being hardwired into modern technologies.

The democratic potential of the Internet is not predicated on a subscription to an Internet connection but on the idea that the Internet is a platform for free speech—a space to access and share ideas and innovations. Policies addressing the digital divide must embrace the Internet Craftsman and confront the deep and growing chasm between users of restrictive technologies and those free to innovate without gatekeepers. The Internet's potential to empower is strongest when users are free to turn their imaginations into reality, not when innovation is confined by increasingly restrictive policies of network operators. The future of democratic communications depends on the ability of network participants to have control over the technologies we use every day.

James Losey is a policy analyst with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative. He writes about user freedoms and the digital divide have been published in Advances in Computing, Ars Technica, CommLaw Conspectus, IEEE Internet Computing, IEEE Spectrum, and Slate.

Sascha Meinrath is vice president of the New America Foundation and director of the Open Technology Institute.