Oval Office Thunderdome: The Technology Vote

You don’t actually have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country.

— Mark Soohoo, aide to John McCain

You actually do.

— Tracy Russo, Democratic blogger

The information revolution has left a mark on the country and the world every bit as indelible as that of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. And while no world leader of the time could have been expected to have an industrial-sized loom or steam engine in their offices, today’s leaders should have more than just a passing knowledge of computers and the internet.

The online world is a place where Americans continually spend more of their time. Online usage at home or work continues to increase every year. This is a tide that will not recede. For many of those who are connected, the internet has entered into daily usage to the point where it has become an essential component of lifestyle. The next president cannot possibly understand that the computer has moved beyond being just a tool or a convenience, unless he has himself experienced its daily use.

The information revolution is a delicate process, one that is still evolving. The next president will presumably preside over important legislation in either his first or second term that could have far-reaching implications for how the internet operates.

Right now, the internet is essentially a free forum of information. That is, content is largely unregulated. But the concept of net neutrality, where no one web page is inherently more important than any other, is being threatened by the large service providers. As they strive to establish tiered access to information based on any particular website’s ability to pay a tithe, it is important that the president be a champion for equal protections under the First Amendment for the vast majority of content creators. The internet is too important to allow big businesses to curtail free expression due to a creator’s lack of funds. Constitutional protections need to be extended to individual web pages as it was to telephone calls in the past. A president who does not understand that content creators already pay for hosting and bandwidth, may not understand that being forced to pay an additional fee so internet users may have speedy access to their sites is tantamount to censorship, creating class divisions in a place where previously there had been none. This will stifle innovation and consolidate diversity into homogeneity, crippling the creativity of a medium that is at its best when it rewards outsiders.

Next, the issue of speed must be addressed. A president with a lack of experience using the internet may not recognize how important a factor speed really is.

I recall a conversation I had with my father a few years ago, when he asked what I felt was the most important improvement that needed to be made to the internet. As a web developer, I am always conscious of how heavy is the site I’m developing. Optimizing for fast load times is an art all developers hone, and all developers have these thoughts cross their minds: “I wish I didn’t have to worry about file size. I wish there was no such thing as load time.” Thinking of this, I answered my father, “Speed.”

He was incredulous. My father felt the internet was fast enough. As long as the Times website loaded quickly, he was happy. He had little appreciation that the internet he experienced on a daily basis was one that was largely text-based, and therefore light. But such lightness is a narrow limitation. The internet can be much more than just a collection of words and static images, as the continued introduction of streaming media illustrates. But without huge improvements in bandwidth, such development has already neared its peak.

The service providers were given billions of dollars in tax subsidies in the 1990’s to develop this needed bandwidth, but did little more than pocket the money. The next president must champion an effort to press the service providers to fulfill their promises, and build an ultra high-speed online infrastructure, available in all areas to all those living and working in the country. The effort is akin to, and as important as, the massive effort to electrify the nation. Whether further subsidies are needed, or legislation that spurs private sector competition, this nation cannot afford status quo foot-dragging by service providers who already rake in huge profits for providing internet speeds that are the laughingstock of the first world.

Another problem with today’s internet speeds that needs to be addressed is throttling. Introduced by the service providers to restrict connection speeds available to high bandwidth users, throttling is, in actuality, the end result of a lack of available infrastructure.

According to the service providers, 5% of internet users command 95% of available bandwidth while using P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing programs. In order to keep things flowing on the internet, it becomes necessary to restrict these users’ bandwidth while they are not only using P2P programs, but are engaged in any file transfer while using any number of different software applications that the service providers deem to be illegitimate, whether such activity is or not. For example, a user may be paying upwards of sixty dollars a month for connection speeds of 10MB per second downloads and 5MB per second uploads. However, it is expected that most users will not require that speed, which is lightning fast when loading a page that is primarily text, but is not so fast when a user is viewing streaming media. Users that do require the full speed they pay for, in order to transfer large files over the internet, have their speeds throttled to around 500k per second downloads, 50k per second uploads. That’s approximately 4% of promised download speed, and less than 1% of upload speed for a user who has purchased a plan similar to that mentioned above. The percentages are even lower for a user with a more expensive plan.

The service providers have no issue with whether a user is transferring pirated music or movies, or is transferring large images to a professional printer. To them, it is all about the bandwidth. Part of the problem would be alleviated by pressing the providers to increase the speed and capacity of our country’s internet infrastructure. Like we learned with actual traffic in this country, however, building more roads and bridges does not alleviate traffic, it promotes greater usage. In the case of the internet, faster speeds will inevitably lead to applications and users that use the new capacity. But doing nothing is no solution. The 5% heavy users will always be there. Restricting bandwidth they are purchasing, essentially punishing them for using a product they have paid for, is no solution to the bandwidth problem, either. Instead, there needs to be a truthful reckoning of the speed available to all internet users. The 5% may seem like bandwidth hogs, but in reality, any of us could be among the 5% at any time, depending on how we are using the internet. Any user can trigger throttling, to the point where throttling is not just a restriction on a particular subset of users, but represents that actual speed available to all users.

That being the case, that the service providers cannot provide reliable service at speeds they advertise and charge for, the bandwidth problem is worse than anyone is currently willing to admit.

The internet is a powerful forum for business and personal relationships. It is also an essential communications tool for international terrorism. It is the great equalizer in the spread of propaganda, finances, and covert instructions to terrorist cells. The next president’s understanding of the internet is essential in directing the activities of the sixteen intelligence agencies under his purview to track and monitor terrorist activity over the web. New rules and procedures still need to be defined regarding protections available to internet users, and just how wide the net of government observation needs to extend to effectively deny unfettered and unobserved internet use to terrorists. There is no greater civil rights issue in the 21st century, as no issue affects more people. It does not just encompass what we see or hear, write or say. The vast amount of private and sensitive information available online means that intelligence agencies will be dealing with far more than First Amendment issues and terrorism. Databases with more information than even the East German Stasi ever dreamed of are being established on citizens of this and every nation. How this information is used, or not used, is the difference between a police state and a free society.

The next president will be required to balance national security and individual rights, limiting as best he can any lasting damage to America’s legacy of freedom. Much information that resides on the interconnected machines of the world exists without the knowledge of the subject, culled from all the countless signed documents and automated phone calls which make up a person’s life. It would be among the greatest of tragedies were this largely unrestricted flow turned against the American people by their own government. Only a president who understands computers and the internet could comprehend the thin line between trust and disaster that more and more Americans walk everyday.

These are the three dominant issues of the information revolution: equality, access, and protection. We need a president who lives on the internet like we do — who sees these issues every single day. He needs to understand that as our experience with the internet goes, so goes our economy and international legitimacy. He needs to understand that embracing this new way of life immediately gives his administration a greater understanding of the lives of American citizens, and the future direction of the country.