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Originally published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Protecting online freedom as the Internet turns 30

The online community needs protections to prevent our ideas from being blocked, writes guest columnist Timothy Karr.

Special to The Seattle Times

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THE Internet turned 30 earlier this month. On Jan. 1, 1983, engineers launched the basic protocol for sharing bits between computers, setting in motion the networked world we live in today.

It’s during anniversaries like these that we have a chance to take stock of this remarkable network and the people who make it what it is.

As the Internet enters its middle years, we users can no longer take it for granted. It’s more than a cloud. It’s people, technology and physical infrastructure. As with any infrastructure, the Internet needs protection and maintenance to survive; otherwise the wires and signals that send digital communications will cease to function. The online community also needs protections — to prevent our ideas from being blocked, our identities from being hijacked and our wallets from being picked.

Behind the quiet leadership of people like Aaron Swartz, millions of Internet users rose up en masse last January to protect these rights and stop two Internet-crippling copyright bills. Swartz committed suicide on Jan. 11 after being hounded for two years by U.S. prosecutors who sought a harsh prison term. Swartz allegedly downloaded millions of academic articles from a protected database.

Swartz, who was only 26 at the time of his death, was at the forefront of the struggle for open networks where knowledge is freely available to anyone who seeks it. It’s part of a global Internet freedom movement built around a set of ideals, many of which are within our grasp in the U.S.

“Internet freedom” refers to every user’s right to connect openly with anyone and speak freely. Those who don’t think this right is under threat in America need only look at Verizon’s 2012 claim that the First Amendment gives it the authority to edit the Internet, entitled to pick and choose what content travels across its wires and what content does not.

Verizon’s encroachment on online rights is one of many similar moves Internet service providers made last year. In France, telecoms have sought to disable connections to YouTube and other user-generated media services, while regimes like those in China and Iran are attempting to reconstruct the Internet from scratch, building censorship into its basic architecture.

To protect our right to choose what we do and where we go online, every Internet user needs net neutrality — safeguards that prevent network providers from filtering or censoring information.

As Internet users use open networks to get more creative — mixing up video, music and other media to push the envelope of online innovation — their data should be treated like water. In other words, it should be cheap and plentiful, not rationed out like a rare wine.

But Internet service providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable see things differently. They’ve set in place excessive-use policies designed to contain user-based innovation while earning these companies even higher profit margins.

Thanks to these data caps, Internet service providers can charge steep overage fees to anyone who blows past arbitrarily imposed limits. The network providers have tried and failed to portray these caps as pro-consumer. In truth they’re just a way for phone and cable companies to enrich themselves while stifling online innovation. The future should be about fostering creativity from the bottom up. And we’re not just talking about freeing user-generated videos and music, but also about enabling people to use data-rich online health and education services that have made Internet access vital.

We need to ensure that everyone has access to a world-class network. The amount of money Americans fork over each month for Internet, phone and cable TV services continues to rise — all while our service providers fail to build out their networks to connect more people online. These high prices have left nearly 20 million Americans cut off from the benefits of the information age, unable to gain access to broadband.

To make matters worse, AT&T has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission and state governments to allow it to stop offering basic communications services to rural regions where the need for access is dire — despite the fact that it receives hundreds of millions in subsidies each year specifically to serve these areas.

To connect every American, we need to confront the market power of phone and cable companies and open the way for alternatives, such as the municipal networks that communities are building across the country. We need to do this so everyone can reap the benefits of an increasingly networked world.

Finally, Americans need a choice of providers. Most people buying home Internet access have two choices: the local monopoly phone company or the local monopoly cable provider. Redmond-based AT&T Wireless and Verizon dominate the wireless Internet access market and also control the critical infrastructure that smaller and increasingly irrelevant competitors like Sprint need.

AT&T’s bid to take over Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA was stopped in 2011 when regulators found the merger would stifle competition and harm consumers. Even so, most Americans have no choice but to do business with the dominant companies. If we think they’re ripping us off, we can’t vote with our feet — there’s nowhere else for us to go.

The concentration of gatekeeper power has very real, and very negative, consequences. Americans pay far more for far less than people in developed countries whose policymakers have promoted competition instead of profits. It’s time our leaders in Washington, D.C., did the same.

Internet users are only now beginning to get organized to ensure that power over the network stays in our hands. It’s a movement that touches almost every aspect of modern life. If more people get involved in the fight to protect this open network, we can transform the lives of many for the better.

Timothy Karr is senior director of strategy for Free Press, a nonpartisan group working for media that serve the public interest. A native of Bainbridge Island, Karr lives near New York City.

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