Task force/Recommendations/Advocacy 1

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Proposal: Wikimedia’s Advocacy Stance on the Problem of Net Neutrality



On the Need to Be Prudently Cautious with Wikimedia Foundation Advocacy In General

Wikipedia, in less than 8 years, turned into one of the most important sources of publicly available information, and the only non-for-profit site from the top 10 most visited Web Site globally[1]. The social phenomena which contributed to this success is still not completely understood. However, it is widely recognized [2][3] that a major driving factor to its success is the established culture among Wikipedians of seeking, and finding, a consensus on a topic.

Further supporting this observation, topics where consensus was very hard to reach, have always appeared to be points of contention for Wikipedia. As a strong example, one needs to just remember the fate of the topic “Scientology” [4]. In fact, certain members of the public seem to be always vigilant and vocal about any perceived Wikipedia advocacy bias, whether real or imagined [5].

Perhaps in recognition of this, the Wikipedia rules on seeking consensus are very firmly defined [2]. In particular, it is stated that “Consensus develops from agreement of the parties involved.” Guidelines given as a matter of policy are said to be limited to “copyright, legal issues, or server load” or in some cases “certain types of material about living persons”. In particular, the article seems to firmly rule out that any hypothetical advocacy agenda of Wikimedia Foundation or Wikipedia should be considered. And this is where the primary danger of pursuing an advocacy agenda lies. There is no need to advocate on points where a consensus can be easily reached. Advocacy, by definition, zooms in on the rifts between tectonic plates of opposing opinion, and aims to sway opinion to one or the other side. Advocacy is the very antithesis of seeking consensus. It aims to support one particular opinion, rather than to converge opinions. For a consensus-based phenomenon like Wikipedia, to pursue any advocacy agenda would undermine one of the very principles its success is built upon.

One may try to answer this assertion by stating “but Wikimedia Foundation is separate from Wikipedia”. Nevertheless, in the public eye, the two are strongly connected. Due to the existence and prevalence of confirmation bias [6], there does not need to be a real Wikimedia Foundation advocacy impact onto Wikipedia articles, for interested members of the public to find, claim and advertise that there is one. And Wikipedia can ill afford to lose its spirit of consensus and fairness of content building.

We conclude that for the Wikimedia Foundation, pursuing advocacy on most topics would be equivalent to cutting the proverbial branch the Foundation is sitting on.

We are not aiming with this to state here that no advocacy has to ever be carried out by the Wikimedia Foundation. Rather, we are arguing that such advocacy topics should be few and far between. They are best reserved for cases where a particular issue or trend, by its virtue, presents a significant threat to Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation, and by advocacy the Foundation is choosing “the lesser of two evils”. One such issue, with tremendous potential for impact on the Foundation , is Net Neutrality.

The Principle of Net Neutrality (Background)

Network neutrality (also net neutrality, Internet neutrality) is a principle proposed for user access networks participating in the Internet that advocates no restrictions on content, sites, or platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed, as well as communication that is not unreasonably degraded by other traffic. [7]

The principle states that if a given user pays for a certain level of Internet access, and another user pays for a given level of access, that the two users should be able to connect to each other at the subscribed level of access. In particular, it asserts that “last mile” internet connection providers should not impose restrictions or provide privileges to one type of content reaching the end user over another.

Net Neutrality is presently a highly contested topic, with legislatures such as the ones of US and EU on the brink of adopting pro-net neutrality laws, and other legislatures e.g. UK drifting in the opposite direction [17]. It appears that key, precedent-setting legislation in the area will be firming up in 2010 [15][16], therefore right now is the right time to exercise advocacy efforts, if these are desired.

Proposed Wikimedia Foundation Advocacy Position: For Net Neutrality

Our proposed advocacy position is that the Wikimedia Foundation should strongly speak out for the principle of net neutrality, and should direct attention and attitudes towards adopting pro-net neutrality laws where the Foundation or its Chapters can reach or influence public opinion.

At the same time, Wikipedia as a site could counter the threat to its perceived consensus culture, by announcing a specific “neutrality” policy on the encyclopedia articles related to net neutrality, and – if necessary – establishing an editorial watchdog to enforce such neutrality.

Why Should Wikimedia Foundation Support Net Neutrality?

If Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to prioritize one type or source of Interned content over another, this could result in at least four behaviors jeopardizing the existence of Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects over the medium to long run:

  1. ISPs blocking content presumably because of financial considerations. For example, T-Mobile announced that they are blocking Skype over GSM networks in Germany[8]. Comcast have been observed to block P-2-P bit torrent data transfers over their networks [9][10]. In the case of Wikipedia, this could be an issue if an ISP has an interest in a hypothetical paid online encyclopedia, and throttles or blocks access to Wikipedia in an attempt to promote such a commercial offering.
  2. ISPs censoring “on the fly” content over political, moral or ethical considerations, and therefore enforcing these considerations to the end user. In a much touted example, AT&T recently decided to censor some sections of a Pearl Jam concert streamed over the web [11]. While this is not, per se, an example of a “last mile” censorship, certainly the technology exists to filter and monitor content delivered to end users. Another key example, featuring Wikipedia, was the blocking of the “virgin killer” article and, incidentally, much of Wikipedia, in the UK, over concerns of child pornography [12]. In the case of Wikipedia, any such filtering or blocking of content could interfere with Wikipedia’s objective of free access to knowledge. While this will not be a major concern in the US and parts of EU, with their long tradition of live speech, it could have more severe impact in certain other countries, particularly where ISP corporations could pursue censorship agendas, either their own, or in cooperation with governments.
  3. Commercial web sites could either pay to ISPs, or invest in ISP infrastructure, in order to achieve greater bandwidth to the end users than competing users. A very visible example of this is Google’s edge caching strategy to “install equipment that will bypass the public Internet and ensure that their content, e.g. YouTube, will be delivered to ISP customers faster and more reliably than competing services […] that depend on the public Internet for delivery.” [13]. For Wikipedia, this will be a particularly major threat, if a hypothetical commercial web encyclopedia invests in ISPs to ensure advantage in speed of access over Wikipedia. As a secondary concern, such investment could lead to ISPs having the commercial interest to apply the 1st strategy above, and throttle or outright block Wikipedia access to limit competition.
  4. ISPs could charge web sites for premium bandwidth access to end users, or, in an extreme case, simply in order to allow the web site content to be delivered to end users at all. ISPs could implement a tiered model, where web sites that pay are granted higher access. Something like this can be seen in the recently communicated desire by BT to charge YouTube for access to its end users [14]. Being one of the most accessed sites on the Internet, Wikipedia could conceivably fall into the next tier of sites to be asked to pay for end-user access. Being non-for-profit, it is not likely to be able to afford to pay for such access to end users.

Who holds similar views as well as views that differ to the ones proposed?

For this question, the Wikipedia community has done already a formidable research, and therefore at this initial stage we simply copy the text from the Wikipedia article on Network Neutrality [7]: Proponents of net neutrality include consumer advocates, online companies and some technology companies. Many major Internet application companies are advocates of neutrality, including Google, Yahoo!, Vonage, Ebay, Amazon, IAC/InterActiveCorp. Software giant Microsoft, along with many other companies, has also taken a stance in support of neutrality regulation. Cogent Communications, an international Internet service provider, has made an announcement in favor of certain net neutrality policies. According to Google: Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet. The Internet has operated according to this neutrality principle since its earliest days... Fundamentally, net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet. In our view, the broadband carriers should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing applications or content. Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say, broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activity online.

Guide to Net Neutrality for Google Users

Individuals who support net neutrality include Tim Berners-Lee, Vinton Cerf, Lawrence Lessig, Robert W. McChesney, Steve Wozniak, Susan P. Crawford, and David Reed, and President Barack Obama.

A number of net neutrality interest groups have emerged, including SaveTheInternet.com which frames net neutrality as follows: Net Neutrality means no discrimination. Net Neutrality prevents Internet providers from blocking, speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination.

Opponents of net neutrality include large hardware companies and members of the cable and telecommunications industries. Network neutrality regulations are opposed by some noted Internet engineers, such as professor David Farber and TCP inventor Bob Kahn.

Robert Pepper is senior managing director, global advanced technology policy, at Cisco Systems, and is the former FCC chief of policy development. He says: "The supporters of net neutrality regulation believe that more rules are necessary. In their view, without greater regulation, service providers might parcel out bandwidth or services, creating a bifurcated world in which the wealthy enjoy first-class Internet access, while everyone else is left with slow connections and degraded content. That scenario, however, is a false paradigm. Such an all-or-nothing world doesn't exist today, nor will it exist in the future. Without additional regulation, service providers are likely to continue doing what they are doing. They will continue to offer a variety of broadband service plans at a variety of price points to suit every type of consumer." Bob Kahn, one of the fathers of the Internet, has said net neutrality is a slogan that would freeze innovation in the core of the Internet. Dave Farber, Michael Katz, Christopher Yoo, and Gerald Faulhaber — Farber, known as the 'grandfather of the Internet' because he taught many of its chief designers, has written and spoken strongly in favor of continued research and development on core Internet protocols. He joined academic colleagues Michael Katz, Chris Yoo, and Gerald Faulhaber in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post strongly critical of network neutrality, stating, "The Internet needs a makeover. Unfortunately, congressional initiatives aimed at preserving the best of the old Internet threaten to stifle the emergence of the new one."

Opposition also comes from think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Goldwater Institute and Americans for Tax Reform have also suggested that this principle may violate the First Amendment.

A number of these opponents have created a website called Hands Off The Internet to explain their arguments against net neutrality. Principal financial support for the website comes from AT&T, and members include technology firms such as Alcatel, 3M and pro-market advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste. Corporate astroturfing is alleged.

Who is needed to support the proposed policy stances (e.g., Wikimedia Foundation, chapters, individual volunteers, external partners), and what do they need to do?

At this stage, it appears that the issue of Net Neutrality will be decided, at least in the US and the EU, on the legislative arena, where two critical precedent-setting pieces of legislation are ongoing:

  • In US, the FCC has issued an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) for a Network Neutrality law, on which comments are due by March 5th, 2010. [15]
  • In the European Union, Net Neutrality is addressed as part of the Telecoms Reform package [16], which has been agreed between the negotiators of the European Parliament, the Council of Telecoms Ministers and the Commission on 5 November, 2009. However this package has to be approved in each of the member states’ parliaments throughout 2010, and since it is bundled together with some quite fundamental reforms (basically the consolidation of the EU Telecom market) the speed of its passing is uncertain. 

One concern of the European legislation is that it seems to permit ISPs at national level to offer internet packages that only allow access to certain web sites (if true, this would be in violent contradiction to the rule of net neutrality). It appears that national legislation can limit their ability to offer such limited-access packages.

Research of the legislation status in remaining countries still has to be done.

In terms of supporting the pro-Net Neutrality policy stance, our recommendation is to:

  • Come out with an open communication to the Wikimedia Chapters, highlighting the importance of Network Neutrality for the organization, and highlighting the Chapters’ role in investigating and steering local legislation to this effect
  • Leave the issue to the individual chapters to push (as it will be driven through the local legislation primarily)
  • Central Wikimedia Foundation help to sign up the voice and participation of key influential supporters of Network Neutrality (as listed in the previous section) helping chapters to promote the cause of Net Neutrality locally.
  • In view of the above issue with the European legislation, actual lobby-work in the EU should have to take place at national level. Chapters, as far as we perceive lack the legal knowledge to oversee these issues. In our view this advice cannot be provided by one person. That's why a recommend an essay contest to involve students (see proposal by Esther Hoorn). Further, this is a topic on which the EDRi [18] could do proactive lobby-work, which is labor-intensive, and share outcomes to a forum within the Wikimedia community to generate public involvement.
  • Formation of policy stance could work somewhat like the letters to the court law students were encouraged to write in IP-cases, that lead to the extension of copyright. In the U.S. Involvement of students might lead to a written body of knowledge on the legal and polical aspects, that can help to get a shared sense of urgency (as alternative for consensus) within the Wikimedia community.
  • In addition, a limited list of topics and a clear position paper of the WMF board would be required before pursuing any policy stance.

References

  1. Wikipedia article on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia
  2. Wikipedia:Consensus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Consensus
  3. A Google search on ‘Wikipedia Consensus’ will return thousands of similar articles, one of which is provided for illustration here http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2007/08/wikipedia_conse_1.html
  4. CNN ”Wikipedia bans the church of Scientology [from editing the site]” - http://scitech.blogs.cnn.com/2009/05/29/wikipedia-bans-church-of-scientology/
  5. Alleged list of “biased” topics in Wikipedia http://www.conservapedia.com/Bias_in_Wikipedia
  6. Confirmation bias - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias
  7. Wikipedia – Net Neutrality http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality
  8. T-mobile blocking Skype in Germany http://moconews.net/article/419-german-carrier-t-mobile-blocking-skype/
  9. Thanks to BitTorrent, Net Neutrality debate reignites – Cnet News http://news.cnet.com/Thanks-to-BitTorrrent,-Net-neutrality-debate-reignites/2100-1034_3-6216750.html
  10. FCC investigating P-2-P trottling on Comcast http://government.zdnet.com/?p=3606
  11. AT&T Censoring a Pearl Jam concert over live streaming http://arstechnica.com/old/content/
  12. Scorpions Virgin Killer album – see section on Internet Censorship http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgin_Killer
  13. Google edge caching strategy - http://futureoftheinternet.org/edge-caching-and-why-it-violates-net-neutrality
  14. British Telecom plans to charge iPlayer and YouTube for access to its end users http://www.utalkmarketing.com/pages/Article.aspx?ArticleID=14279&title=BT_says_BBC_iPlayer,_YouTube_enjoy_broadband_'free_ride'_
  15. FCC releases Net Neutrality NPRM http://www.mobiletechnews.com/info/2009/10/23/124359.html
  16. EU Telecoms Reform Press Release: http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?aged=0&format=HTML&guiLanguage=en&language=EN&reference=MEMO/09/513
  17. UK regulators “relaxed” on Net Neutrality http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,39286400,00.htm
  18. EDRi web site http://www.edri.org/