Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Deciphering net neutrality and the concept of an open-range internet 6

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on March 7, 2015

This is my sixth posting to a series on the contentious topic of net neutrality (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2, postings 299 and loosely following for Parts 1-5.)

I have been writing about net neutrality, and both as it is now under public discussion, and as a wider-ranging complex of issues from the beginning in this series. And as a part of discussing that wider vision of what net neutrality means, I focused on a possible software-level challenge to it in Part 5, where I began a discussion of open source and open standard, and proprietary software-based online connectivity and content presentation software as basic resources for both presenting information online and for accessing it there. The specific recent and I add still unfolding example of this that I focused on in Part 5, involved Facebook and their emerging plans to in effect actively shape online access capabilities for the peoples of developing nations. And I will continue that discussion here in this posting. And I will also at least touch upon a second line of discussion that I began in Part 5 too, where I made note of one of several possible specific regulatory responses to net neutrality challenges that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have to consider, and both in their 2015 net neutrality hearings, and as they move forward from them.

I begin this posting with the first of those two complex issues, and will follow the same order of discussion in this installment that I pursued in Part 5. And I begin that by noting that I wrote about Facebook’s apparent plans in Part 5, in terms of open source versus proprietary online connectivity and information sharing software. That is an important consideration. But in a fundamental sense, there is wider cause for concern of possible challenge to net neutrality in what Facebook and their peer companies seek to do here, than I have been addressing up to now. The possibility of for-fee gate-keeping control over internet access is real, but it is self-limiting and certainly at the software level, as any fee-based barriers or bottlenecks to online access in developing nation communities would create opportunity for alternative connectivity options that were not so controlled – including freeware and the wider use of already-available open source options.

The real potential profit to a for-profit that sought to dominate online access for these newly connecting communities would not come from directly controlling, or seeking to gate-keep online access and with all of the potential for international challenge and for bad press that this could bring. It would come from being an essential, if essentially invisible intermediary in the flow of all of this social media and other exchange of online information, and with the opportunity to gather monetizable personal date from and about essentially everyone who goes online through these systems.

Let’s start by considering the basic business models that are involved here. Facebook offers social media services for free, at least as far as direct monetary cost to consumers is concerned. It generates its incomes from advertising fees, and from the big data that it accumulates, filters and organizes and markets, to its community of client businesses.

As of this writing, there are over one billion user accounts with their own distinct Facebook pages that are live online.

• Some of these are in effect duplicates and for a variety of reasons, and even if Facebook discourages individuals from setting up multiple separate accounts as if for separate people.
• Some of these are inactive and never really looked at by their owners, who in that case are unlikely to even know how to login to their pages. Their content tends to be sparse and more out of date.
• Some, and with time, a growing number of Facebook pages are owned by people who have now died, or become incapacitated. And these accounts in effect offer ghost social media pages and content.
• But hundreds of millions of these accounts and their social media connectivity pages are maintained and even very actively so, and are active conduits to new and continuously updated personal data of all types and both from these account owners and from their social network contacts, through their Facebook walls.

And collectively they offer rich sources of online-accessible data about who all of these people are and what they do and with what priorities and with whom. The announced plans that Facebook and others have floated for bringing internet access to new and emerging developing nation communities would hold potential for doubling this number of accounts and very quickly, where their current markets are largely saturated by now, and with a tremendous increase in the range and depth of the marketable personal date that they can gather and commoditize.

Think of this as the third main component to net neutrality:

1. Net neutrality at the network hardware access level,
2. Net neutrality at the software protocols and software connectivity level, and
3. Net neutrality at the level of who owns the flow of content that goes out online, and perhaps especially the collectable metadata that collectively tells our individual stories as to who we are and what our priorities are, and with all of our personally identifiable information included in all of this, that could potentially be filtered out in creating anonymous commoditizable demographic products, or that might be offered as individually targeted consumer profiles as marketable products.

Ultimately, the issues of net neutrality cannot be separated from the issues of online privacy and confidentiality, and certainly if net neutrality is considered from a fuller, wider perspective – and we will ultimately have to do so societally.

And with that stated I turn back to consider the US FCC and its net neutrality hearings, and to consider any similar regulatory bodies that might also take on the challenges posed by these issues. And I come to the challenges of what these bodies might propose, or promulgate with the force of law depending on the scope and reach of their regulatory authority. I begin that part of this overall discussion with the challenge of tiered online access and the possibility of United States regulatory oversight of it, as my working example:

• Major online service providers seek to offer preferred online connectivity and preferentially wider broadband access to their preferred, higher fee customers. Current debate has focused on the possibility that big businesses with deeper financial resources could come to dominate the internet through this, with smaller and newly forming businesses squeezed out from this, and with smaller organizations of all sorts offered what amounts to second class online citizenship. So a range of organizations and I add a tremendous range of individual citizens have publically expressed concern, and have written against tiered access from online service providers as public comments offered to the US FCC.
• And as I noted at the end of Part 5, one possible resolution to this that has been floated by the FCC is that they might come to a compromise, hybrid ruling that would allow for some sort of tiered pricing for preferential bandwidth and online access, but with safeguards in place that would seek to keep this from becoming anticompetitive. I specifically note that this means protecting the interests of smaller businesses from anticompetitive business practices, but at least as importantly it means protecting those who would express minority views or who might offer opinions or supporting evidence for them, that would be viewed as unpopular to those who hold greater power.
• And I noted that this type of compromise approach could at least potentially lead to significant problems, it could lead to positive and constructive results, or it could lead to results that hold elements of both of these outcome scenarios – depending on how net neutrality is construed in this ruling and on how “hybrid” is laid out operationally, and as a matter of enforceable rulings.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will, among other things, delve into the challenges that would arise if, in keeping with President Obama’s recommendation, internet access per se was to be governed under Title 2 of the US Communications Act of 1934 as amended (see in particular changes to common carrier law as stipulated in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.) Meanwhile, you can find this posting and related at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and at its Page 2 continuation. And I also include this in my In the News postings list.

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