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The Scarlet & Black

Staff Editorial: Why we should care about net neutrality

This week, the unthinkable happened. Democrats and Republicans not only agreed on a bill—they are now fast-tracking it through the political process. Remember, the current political climate is such that a bill to provide 9/11 first responders with healthcare runs the risk of being filibustered—indeed, that did happen. So what bill, you may ask, garnered more bipartisan support than one to protect our nation’s heroes? The bill is called COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act). If passed, it would give power to the court system to decide whether websites “dedicated to infringing activity” are to be blacklisted. An obvious target of this bill are websites like YouTube. Although YouTube removes copyrighted material as soon as it is reported to them, one could loosely interpret Youtube’s existence as being “dedicated to infringing activity.”

The court system that would be put in charge of what is censored on the Internet, then, would be the same court system that on Sept. 24, 2010 issued a ruling barring transnational corporations from being held liable (sued) for human rights violations. While COICA may not seem like a big deal, this is not the first we have heard of Internet reform. Corporations like Google and Verizon are also pushing to allow certain websites to load faster than other websites. Imagine a world where the Huffington Post loads 10 times slower than the Fox News website, not because of a networking glitch, but because Rupert Murdoch paid for it to be that way.

Professor John Stone, speaking on the subject of the Internet, paraphrased a Columbia law professor who said that our age is one where the idea of universal education is more than just a utopian fantasy. Americans in general are relatively desensitized to the truly beneficial power of the Internet. To the average user, the Internet means a quick Facebook break, or a YouTube diversion. To villagers in rural India, the Internet could mean the difference between life and death. Using the vast information suddenly available at their fingertips, they can diagnose diseases they normally could not possibly have had any knowledge of in, say, 1994. The COICA bill and Google-Verizon proposal if passed, could hinder initiatives to bring valuable information to those citizens whose survival depends on access to crucial information.

It may be cliché to say, but it is true that we stand at a crossroads. There are those among us that would stifle the profound power of the Internet in order to protect a copyright system that is outdated and impedes creative discourse. The question is, if the odds are stacked so highly against the vast majority of Americans, what can we do about it?

It just so happens that even at Grinnell, the Internet is regulated by a central office — ITS. For example, you may have noticed it is incredibly hard to torrent things. This is no network glitch. ITS has actually disabled ports necessary for BitTorent trafficking, disallowing any Grinnellian from using the BitTorent protocol. Pragmatically, for the college, this makes sense. Ideologically, however, who are we to argue for network neutrality (Internet deregulation) on a national or global scale if we cannot even practice it on our own campus? If this editorial does anything to spark even the faintest interest in network neutrality, we implore the readers to do their own research on the subject. Grinnellians for Free Culture, a new club that is detailed on p. 3 of the news section of this issue, is a club for Grinnellians dedicated to establishing, among other things, an unregulated and self-sufficient Internet network. Ideally, this implementation would establish a precedent for a network that exchanges information freely, a network that encourages the creative process.

Our goal is first to prove that we as Grinnellians can implement an ideal, unregulated Internet network. If enough of us Grinnellians follow this way of thinking, who knows what we can accomplish.

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