While there is still time, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) would like to add the Internet – with a capital I – to the world heritage list of humanity. This universal recognition distinguishes all cultural and natural property worthy of being included on the list, comprising “past heritage, which we benefit from today, and which we transmit to future generations”. The Unesco convention was created at the same time as Internet in the early 1970s. Today, more than 180 countries worldwide have ratified this Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage – as many countries as are also an integral part of the “network of networks”. Given that 2010 marks the crossing of two historical thresholds — two billion people with Internet access via a fixed network, and one billion accessing the Internet via a multimedia telephone or smartphone (out of five billion people using a mobile phone worldwide) – now is the time to recognize Internet as world heritage to safeguard.
This is urgent, because the Internet — which was created 40 years ago – may disappear in favor of dedicated networks whose services are managed by telecom operators and access providers. Until now, the founding principle of Internet neutrality, i.e., guaranteeing everyone access to all Web content and services has been unanimous. But “regulation of traffic” and “differentiated treatment of traffic flow” seem to be getting the upper hand. Open Internet as we still use it today could progressively be replaced with “proprietary networks”, endorsing access discrimination; data transmission surveillance using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology; speed restrictions for commercial reasons; content filtering; or even blocking web sites or refusing Internet user access.
Supporters of ending Net neutrality have found many good reasons: fighting against product piracy in cultural industries; forbidding child-pornographic Web sites; dispelling unauthorized, on-line gambling sites; or cyber wars against terrorism. Even countries that included freedom of expression and fundamental liberties in their Constitution are getting ready, like in China, to set up “black lists” of web sites that access providers are expected to block. Moreover, if the pretext “explosion of data and video traffic” put forward by telecom operators is taken into account, then there is work needed to update existing infrastructures to avoid their saturation, and to finance next-generation, very high-speed networks (fiber optic and 4G) with no “return on investment”: All is ready for the bell of universal Internet to toll.
Does the legitimate struggle against piracy of cultural works (music, films, books…) justify questioning the principle, also entirely justifiable, of Net neutrality? In Europe, the United States, and soon throughout the world, this unwritten situation is questioned. In other words, the way that billions of people use Internet every day – a truly vital lead between the rich countries and the developing countries – is destined to be replaced by a network not open to everyone. Several “closed and security-controlled” networks will meet the economic interests of specific sectors of activity. The musical field, the first to be manhandled by the “creative destruction” of the Net, could soon have its own network managed end-to-end by its producers. The movie industry also hopes to keep a hold on the availability and circulation of its digital films for Internet users with anti-piracy branding. Likewise, television channels will be tempted to manage their own video on demand (VOD) strategy and catch up TV, rather than entrusting their programs to platforms incorporating open video access on the Web and mainly cost-free. Tomorrow, publishing houses could also organize themselves around an on-line, mega-library, offering risk-free commercialization of their digital books. Other culture-based industries like the written press, video games, arts, and museums are also likely to ask the same for their “intranet” and “extranet” works, like virtual private networks in companies and professional organizations.
“PRESERVE NET NEUTRALITY FOR EVERYONE”
The Web has already begun to have a “field day” in terms of downloading applications and services on servers and boutiques with virtual “cogwheels”on the Net, rather than navigating via hypertext links. Apple Computer’s multimedia platform iTunes is a walled garden example that functions successfully alongside the Web. It currently holds a dominant position, without contributing much to its openness and interoperability. This is something to worry the two “Tims”: The first, UK’s Timothy Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web 20 years ago with Belgian Robert Cailliau. Berners-Lee recently denounced the “new plague” comprising the Hadopi laws. These laws require that Internet access be blocked as part of the fight against anti-piracy. The other “Tim”, American Timothy Wu, is concerned about centralized control of the Net via the “Master Switch“. He introduced the theory of network neutrality in 2003. Timothy Wu wants to prevent vertical integration on this new media, and advocates the separation principle between content editors, network operators, and access providers.
Without the idealism of pioneers and their successors, Internet would never have existed, and would never have become the common good, unprecedented in the history of humanity. But its neutral, universal nature risks being shortchanged, in this case to “minimal quality service” with “basic access”. The best effort of Net neutrality will give way to least effort – in other words, minimum cyberspace service. As the United States and the European Union set up access legislation between the “pipeline” and the contents, a reminder of the fundamental elements of the Net from a supranational authority would be appreciated, to preserve what still can exist. “Build peace in the spirit of men” is the slogan of Unesco. “Preserve Internet neutrality for everyone” could be another one for this United Nations organization whose mission is “to contribute to building peace, fighting poverty, human development, and intercultural dialogue via education, science, culture, communication, and information.” The message is loud and clear.
Charles de Laubier is journalist, former editor of the french business dailynewspaper Les Echos and today editor in chief of Edition Multimédi@.
c2laubier (at) sfr.fr