The Quiet Censorship

by Free Speech on May 4, 2010

Lodi, WI~

Lodi Valley News serving Lodi, WI & the Lake Wisconsin area with local information since Earth Day 2008.

by Amanda Hall and Peter Bartosch

One look at the facts in the case of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist jailed by his own government for his reporting (allegedly he revealed state secrets, and if you believe that there’s a bridge in London I’d like to sell you), shows that China doesn’t enjoy freedom on the internet.  Last summer, when democracy activists in Iran used social network websites to organize protests of fraudulent elections, the Iranian government shut down access to these websites.  Again, these are not actions one would associate with freedom on the internet.  Thank goodness we live in America, where nobody but nobody gets to decide for us what we can access on the internet.  Right?  …right?

Maybe not for long.  America is currently confronted the quiet but unavoidable fact that not much more bandwidth can be squeezed from the physical infrastructure of its telephone and data lines.  Meeting the growing bandwidth demands would require a major overhaul of the millions of miles of telephone and data lines in the nation.  If the federal government fails to rise to the challenge and undertake such an effort (an effort it undertook with the original telephone lines, as well as electrical lines and railroads), internet providers will capitalize on the artificial scarcity of bandwidth by blocking websites and other internet services which, according to the internet providers, take up too much bandwidth.  Internet users who want access to all the websites they had access to before can expect to pay a premium, and some sites will just be blocked altogether.

So far, this idea seems like the natural course of a capitalist economy – supply and demand, sunrise and sunset.  And really, if I never again watch ‘Baby Panda Sneeze’ on YouTube, I’ll probably live.  (, it will really make your day).  While it may not seem like it, Americans use the internet for more than entertainment; we use it for news and research as well.  The idea that an internet provider, a private company, can decide which websites its subscribers can see means that news websites could easily be blocked too.  After all, news websites display logos, ads, video segments, photographs, and other bandwidth-guzzling material.  An inability to access certain websites when learning the news of the day or trying to educate oneself about a topic or issue would make it almost impossible to get a full, clear, and free picture of the world.

Before the internet, Americans managed to get about all the news and information they wanted from the nightly television news and from newspapers; but the internet allowed a new abundance of ideas and information to spring forth through something as simple as a telephone line.  Now that many Americans depend upon this medium as a source of information, one must ask if it is practical to close off or restrict it.  No longer do most Americans find the time to read an entire newspaper; 15 minutes on a few news websites is all they may have to spare.  A producer would be hard put to fit the events and concerns of one’s individual community, state, nation, and the other 5.5 billion people on the planet into a 30 minute television news program.  Oftentimes the news websites provide that extra perspective that TV news cannot be reasonably expected to encompass.

Yet another concern with the future of internet access is for small business owners.  The internet is a powerful marketing tool and sales venue, and for the cost of a website any small business owner or entrepreneur can advertise, post pictures of, and sell his/her products, without ever renting a square foot of office space or purchasing health insurance for his employees.  Those same photos that help sell his products, however, may use too much bandwidth in the eyes of internet providers.  He could well be required to pay a fee to each provider so that his website can be accessed by each provider’s internet users.  These initial costs may make it cost-prohibitive for him to do business online at all.  Bigger businesses would certainly be able to absorb or pass along such costs, but the businessman who is just starting out could be sunk before he starts.

There are both practicality and liberty concerns with an internet provider’s power to block access to certain websites.  Technological progress has made the internet a tool for being more engaged and better informed citizens.  It has created a leg up for small businesses.  Internet access has opened a door which would be closed if the need for more bandwidth capability is not addressed.  Says Peter Bartosch, president and co-founder of OurWebOurFreedom Citizens’ Group, “The solution won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap, but we’ve got to decide how much we really want to be free, and what we want that freedom to mean in America.”

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