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CHAPTER I - Laying the Groundwork: The Tension of Values

No one questions the Internet’s already substantial impact on society, the economy and modern life in the 21st century. It’s only growing. Over the next decade, an estimated 5 billion people will get connected to the Internet. What will this world-changing force look like in the years—and even the months—ahead?

“We’re in the middle of an epic battle for power in cyberspace,” writes Harvard’s Berkman Center’s Bruce Schneier. “On one side are the nimble, unorganized distributed powers such as dissident groups, criminals, and hackers. On the other side are the traditional, organized, institutional powers such as governments and large multinational corporations.”

Will the Internet still exist with the global interoperability it enjoys now? How will American regulators enforce the notion of net neutrality? Will speeds and reliability be fast enough to meet the information and economic needs of communities? How do we help the Internet fulfill more of its promises to more citizens?

“Our preference for free speech is the freest possible speech,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said, in opening remarks at the 2014 Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS), a three-day brainstorm involving some of the leading thinkers on the Internet and society. The Internet is and has long been a means to the right of free speech and free information. But the ways it gets to people, and what information they see, are not neutral, due largely to issues of access.

The stakes are high—openness, free expression and the innovation necessary for economic viability and growth, among them. The tensions are ever present. The tension of liberty and security faced by all governments and societies—is baked into the Internet’s challenges. And it’s against this fast-changing context that the attendees at FOCAS 2014 convened.

This report features the discussions, questions and ideas for strengthening the way the Internet works today from notable Internet entrepreneurs, creators, communicators and regulators convened by the Aspen Institute and supported by the Knight Foundation, August 10-13, 2014, in Aspen, Colorado. The group explored the competing values of security, innovation, openness and privacy, and other tensions. The meeting aimed to better understand and devise a “most ideal” road ahead for a freest possible and most open Internet, and establish guiding policy principles to ensure the Internet’s role as a means to free expression, consumer choice, and a secure and vibrant economy.

How We Got Here

“I feel like I have a front row seat at the digital revolution,” said current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member Jessica Rosenworcel, opening her remarks at the 2014 FOCAS Forum by marking a birthday. This year, the World Wide Web turned twenty-five. And the FCC strives to foster the growth of communications networks that continue to support the web—and have from the start.

A key player in the recent history of the FCC is Reed Hundt, chairman of the Commission during the inception of the Internet. He recalls the top level meetings with Al Gore in 1993: “We wanted the Internet to borrow existing phone networks without paying for them, to enhance the value of phone lines and enhance the value of a personal computer,” Hundt said. “Furthermore, we decided if we did all this, the United States would be the country that would be establishing the design principles for the thing called the Internet.”

It sounds prescient, looking back. But the problem was it wasn’t welcome by the telephone companies, as you might expect, whose business was being disrupted by the upstart Internet. By 1997, a split was codified, saying all Internet communications will not be subject to regulations applied to voice telecommunications. “So the Internet used the hardware of a telephone network, but regulators established openness on top of it,” Hundt explains. “Everything beyond the telephone lines were not subject to regulation in terms of price and content.”

But with broadband came the end of telephone lines for Internet content. Broadband is generally reliant on existing cable lines, and in more recent times, our connections are based on wireless technology. That’s where Hundt sees reason to worry.

“What’s happened, is the physical platform for the Internet moved to wireless and cable … two systems that are not traditionally open. Do we take the values of the Internet defined in the 1990s and celebrated for years, and impose those values on the two other ecosystems (wireless and cable)? That’s the burden,” Hundt says.

The Landscape

On broadband reach, Rosenworcel says Americans have access to high speed Internet, whether it’s through cable, wireless or phone lines, though gaps, particularly in rural areas, remain. The adoption rate has been stunning and unseen by previous technologies. “The percentage of people 18 years and older in the United States who have adopted the Internet over the past two decades has grown at a rate not seen since the popularization of the telephone, soaring nearly fivefold, from 14 percent in 1995,” The New York Times reported in 2013.

But when it comes to the robustness of their connections, a different story emerges. About half of Americans get Internet access at speeds of 10mbps or more, but that’s not enough to land the United States into the top tier of countries with fast broadband access. The country that invented the Internet, and is home to tech behemoths Apple, Google, Microsoft and others, ranks behind Estonia in download speeds. Commissioner Rosenworcel suggests the lack of competition among Internet providers is a concern.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act—which was meant to foster competition—allowed cable companies and telecom companies to sometimes divide markets and/or merge their way to what many consider oligopolistic practices. ISPs can charge customers incrementally higher prices without investing in research and development or faster fiber optic connections that are seen in places like South Korea, which boasts the world’s speediest average broadband speeds in the world.

“We don’t have enough competition,” Rosenworcel says. “Because half [of] those who have broadband can only get it from two or one providers. Even as an FCC commissioner, I am one of them.”

Fiber optic connections, in particular, are expensive to build out but offer faster and smoother connections than traditional copper wire connections. Verizon stopped building out fiber optic connections in 2010—citing high costs—although, recently, Google Fiber and other new entrants are extending fiber connections to more cities.

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