The two companies were presumed to be on opposite sides of this issue since Google bases its business on an open Internet and Verizon, among other things, sells access to the Internet. For the sake of getting commitments from Verizon to support a “neutral” Internet delivered on hard wires, Google wrote on one of its blogs, it agreed to some exceptions: no neutrality for the Internet delivered wirelessly and for “additional, differentiated” online services.
But how do things look from the perspective of the grass? Is there reason to worry when two elephants join tails?
Far below Google and Verizon or Facebook and AT&T on the information network are the small, independent Internet service providers like Riseup.net, a nonprofit collective based in Seattle that hosts e-mail and e-mail lists. As one link in the chain of the Internet, hosts like Riseup already operate at the mercy of the corporations that do most of the moving of packets of information across the Internet.
“Net neutrality would be a good thing, but so many other things would have to happen to level the playing field,” Elijah Saxon, a graduate student in sociology and part of the Riseup collective, said in an interview. The big players have resources — bigger, faster computers — that make their services quicker, he said, independent of the speed they are carried along the Internet.
“It is not one of the debates we are involved in,” he added. “It tends to be between industry titans.”
Created in 2000 by antiglobalization advocates, Riseup “started with a handful of accounts on a few donated PCs stashed in someone’s basement,” Devin Theriot-Orr, an immigration lawyer who is also part of the core group of a dozen or so who run the site, wrote in an e-mail. “Ten years later, we are still volunteer-driven and have a large user base from all over the world.”
Riseup handles hundreds of thousands of e-mails a day, and the groups whose lists it hosts — animal rights outfits, freegans, guerrilla gardeners, edible-forest enthusiasts, squatters, anarchist-book sellers — send to three million addresses, Mr. Theriot-Orr said.
Riseup was leery of describing the groups: in the possibly overstated words of Mr. Saxon, “Any group we name would not want to be named.”
With Riseup’s connections to political groups, you may think it is most concerned that a nonneutral Internet would be a threat to its often politicized communications; that, in essence, a nonneutral carrier could punish political groups it disagreed with.
But both Mr. Saxon and Mr. Theriot-Orr said their bigger fear was the additional level of monitoring — they call it surveillance — that an Internet with built-in nonneutrality would require: monitoring so that packets of information can be routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged.
Yes, even in these politicized times, Internet neutrality has generally been viewed on commercial terms, not political ones. And the surveillance that worries the members of the Riseup collective is now being used to sell products — and help defray the costs of building the Internet’s infrastructure, their supporters would quickly point out.
Without neutrality, say advocates of online privacy, the Internet becomes more like a mall — where users are from the start viewed as consumers — and less like a public square.
“The people who are pushing for a nonneutral world are pushing it for monetary purposes,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for privacy online.
“Interfering with packets,” she said, echoing Mr. Saxon’s concerns, “creates the space for this kind of surveillance.”
The fact is that monitoring Internet users is increasingly crucial to online business — whether by e-commerce sites that recommend purchases or by search engines that remember what you looked for in the past to improve results or by e-mail services that place ads based on words in the messages.
For a recent series in The Wall Street Journal about how Web sites track their visitors, called “What They Know,” The Journal studied the top 50 Web sites in the United States to see how many tools they embedded in visitors’ computers. Many use more than 100 such tools; only Wikipedia had none.
Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who is an advocate for free software and online privacy, sees frameworks like the one proposed by Google and Verizon as emphasizing the business of the Internet at the expense of the privacy of the Internet.
“As the network does more to adapt to what commerce needs, it becomes more and more about knowing what’s inside the head of the user, about what the person is doing and buying,” he said.
Rather than a neutral Internet — with its implied competition between rival businesses — the people at Riseup would seem to be wishing for a “plain” Internet that would merely facilitate communication and connections, and minimize the role of commerce.
Mr. Saxon wrote in an e-mail that it would even be worth a fee: “If people paid for what they use, rather than having their behavior tracked and monetized to pay for ‘free’ services, then the small providers stand more of a chance.”
Recalling Riseup’s start in an interview, Mr. Saxon went back to 2000. “Free e-mail that was available had a tag line on the bottom,” he said. “People would sign up on Hotmail to organize the vegan potluck dinner and the ad would say ‘win free steaks.’ ”