Why Data Caps Are Censorship (by David K. Smith)

A little something on the sidelines of photography, but which affects pretty much everyone. As a photographer, I rely on the Internet to display my work, and many also use the internet for storage and backup. The new data cap policies being introduced by major Internet service providers today may drastically change the potential we allow ourselves from the information age. -David K. Smith

Please see the petition on Change.org stop data capping: http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-data-capping

Censorship is always the restriction of access from information. Whether the censor takes the form of a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David, or the form of denying access to the Internet, in both instances the viewer is being restricted from someone else’s original vision. While conventionally, censorship is said to deny publication to depictions of “objectionable” words, images and symbols, limiting an individual’s internet access in any way is censorship of the “big picture.”

An internet user who is capped by their ISP cannot possibly have access to the full palette of media which the Internet has to offer. The world wide web offers high-definition movie streams from Netflix, online radio, online gaming, “the Cloud,” online file storage programs, online education, calling programs such as Skype, and many other scientific and business applications, this list naming only a scant few. The human species has achieved a threshold of information aggregation dreamed of (until now) only in the form science fiction. To limit access of this virtually limitless knowledge amounts to censorship of the big picture.

The “Big Picture” is the idea that every person should have access to information in a completely effortless and totally flexible manner, limited only by the available technology or ingenuity needed for its manifestation. At the moment, technology more than exists for a very supple and flexible broadband infrastructure to exist in the United States. However, major telecoms are limiting broadband access to arbitrary chunks, rather than expanding their networks, despite a national mandate to build tomorrow’s broadband infrastructure (and billions in taxpayer funding). The application of a data limit for each user is, from a technological standpoint, and from a funding for infrastructure standpoint, completely unnecessary.

So now many American Internet users are censored from the Big Picture. Whereas before, they could access any part of the global information available to them without restraint, now they are segmented into a small, potentially stifling sphere of data caps which no longer allows free access to all the information available. They have been censored from the Big Picture, as before, they had complete access, whereas now, they have only partial access, in that, literally, they cannot access beyond a set (i.e., 150gb) limit per month.

There is absolutely no technological reason for this limit. Whereas in the past, infrastructure for roads, railroads, telegraphs, electric lines, etc., has always been extended to meet demand, major ISPs are stating that bandwidth is a precious commodity which cannot be expanded or extended. This is self-evidently false. Ergo, these data caps originate from economic concerns and skewed social values.

American success stories such as Google and Netflix would not exist without a free and open Internet. The Internet is an open landscape allowing people across the globe instant communication with each other. To in anyway limit this communication by capping the amount of data “allowed,” or by maintaining slow connection speeds for internet users, is to violate the primary purpose of the Internet: instant, global access. Obviously, instant, global access may not be capped, or the access is not instant, and since you are censored from the Big Picture, not global.

So data capping, throttling, and other forms of Internet monetization, violate the fundamental nature of the Internet (which is complete, open and transparent access), in that they restrict you from this access (which is the whole reason one uses the Internet in the first place). They are self-evidently censorship, in that they restrict one’s access from the original vision of the world wide web–which is seamless, flexible, universal access to information.

No one can dispute that the purpose of the Internet is to provide global access to whatever information is required or desired. Thus, to in anyway infringe on this access is to contradict the purpose of the Internet. An ISP which caps access must only do so from a shortsighted standpoint of greed and quarterly profits. Very likely, continued investment in broadband infrastructure would yield substantial long term fiscal rewards. Monetizing by gigabytes of usage is an improper form of profit by the ISP provider, as monetizing in this way contradicts the purpose of the Internet, as it, by necessity, censors the Big Picture.

One has to ask, when must the capitalization of a service or item be stopped in favor a more socially egalitarian process? Certain proponents of capitalism, I am sure, would charge for the very air a person breathes, if it were possible to do so. Only a society’s people can draw the line for when capitalism strips its bounds.

Prices and caps aside, the Internet is not a luxury; it is crucial to the underpinnings of the U.S. economy. One simply needs to imagine Amazon.com, or to think of their workplace, and to how the Internet is indispensable for sales and logistics. Many companies perform their billing online. Every major brand in the U.S. likely has not only a website, but a Facebook and Twitter page. (It pays to remember that ISPs are also capping business.) Just like the ATM card, the Internet is more at the underpinnings of today’s world than people may realize. Other countries are struggling to build a reliable Internet infrastructure in order to compete in today’s increasingly wired world.

If the ISP begins to play anything but a passive part in providing content via their internet service, they violate Net Neutrality. For example: if a user downloads from Netflix on AT&T’s Uverse broadband service, the download counts against the user’s bandwidth allotment. If the user downloads the same content from AT&T’s own move streaming service, the download is not counted against the user’s cap. AT&T, in this instance, is favoring its own movie service, encouraging users to stream their movies from them, rather than their competitor, Netflix.

If the ISP is determining which media outlet one uses, they now potentially limit the content one may view. If a hypothetical AT&T news streaming service is free, whereas a competitor’s counts against one’s bandwidth cap, then some people may only be able to afford to see “AT&T News,” which means that the news they get may be slanted, because they cannot access other news services for different perspectives–they are censored from the “Big Picture.”

One also needs to be wary of the monetizing of things which really have no expense. Oil and gold are finite substances, and so are considered rare, as they are difficult to find and procure. However, there is no way to adequately “measure” the Internet, as its entire purpose is to be infinite. Ergo, to apply a limit of any amount is useless, as the Internet cannot be measured to begin with. Unlike a long distance telephone conversation, in which one might have a rough idea how much they wish to say, one cannot project their Internet usage. A researcher cannot project how many books will have to be read, an artist cannot project how many canvases might be needed–and to tell a cancer researcher that she can only access five books in the library of limitless knowledge (the equivalent of Internet data capping) is censorship of the Big Picture.

For example, say ICANN allows for the selling of .coms (that is, website URLs, or names, such as ‘Amazon.com’) for $10,000 per name, rather than the current prices (around $5 or so). This would mean that normal citizens could no longer start their own websites, and only governments or corporations would have the funds to afford to create a website, simply because purchasing a website name and address is prohibitively expensive. . .for no empirically measurable reason. Where again, gold and oil are finite resources, which can be mathematically priced, a website name registration is simply a tiny mark in a limitless field of electrons, which, while funded to be maintained, in and of themselves are infinite. Thus, pricing the naming of websites cannot be based on anything measurable, as they require no resources to manifest, unlike a car or a house. How can one charge for a website name, which the effort required is a mark in a database and an already functioning Internet? The answer? There is no cost to it–the price is purely fictional, and exists only in people’s minds. There is no demonstrable act which occurs that demands any more effort than the pre-existence of the system itself. The prohibitive price only functions as a form of censorship, as, profit aside, the reality is people are restricted from access, from expressing their perspective, and, by being unable to join in the global dialogue, censored from the Big Picture.

As the need for information exists, and the means to provide it exist, then the only real question at stake is, “Will we allow ourselves this access to information?” For the first time in our existence, we have access to limitless information, as close at hand as a mobile phone, and made infinite by its exponential growth. Individuals can express themselves with ease, and be heard around the world by those who care to listen. However, just as it broadens horizons, it may also frighten people who are entrenched in specific world views, and do not want other views to have equal access. In this context, I refer not only to governments or corporations which may wish to censor access to specific ideas, but also to the individuals themselves, who may wish to shield themselves from views which create in them a cognitive dissidence.

The result is an “information phobia,” in which people acquiesce to data capping, despite its contradiction to the Internet’s self-evident purpose of providing limitless information. By having a limit, even one they despise, they are safe, as they now have an excuse not to investigate troubling social trends as they could “exceed their bandwidth.”

Like a leash for a pet, they are content to be walked as far as their neighborhood and maybe the block beyond. Past these points, the world is strange and wild. This may seem comical, however, one can visit forums in Australia, where citizens are heavily capped, originally for geographical and technological reasons, but now, even with a new, high-speed network in place, the caps remain. When asked about this in their forums, the members replied with statements such as, “Real Men Cap,” and “We’re not Americans.” For this view to exist, when limitless information is available, plus the means to deliver it, can only point to a phobia on someone’s part (in this author’s opinion). Whether the Information Phobia exists on the part of the individual, or upon the part of the power elite, is an interesting question.

The question of data capping should not exist. It has appeared only as a result of an information phobia, and exists as a form of censorship to keep people from complete access to the “Big Picture.” I do not think the underlying cause of the data capping is economic, as the fiscal rewards of building a more powerful internet broadband network are self-evident. Whether imposed by mega-corporations or governments, or accepted by acquiescence on the part of individual internet users, the question before us as a society is: will we accept limitless information?

The information is there, the infrastructure is there; in fact, it may already be too late to reject the Internet. However, the only fashion in which the Internet can function is with open and free, reliable access, because the purpose of the Internet is to provide access to information independent of geographic distances, or any set “amount” of information.

If ISPs start data capping, where will it stop? How can one quantify the price of information? Just how much can one byte of data be worth? What if tomorrow, the data cap limit is 50gb instead of 150gb? If the Internet is capable of creating a limitless number of bytes of information, how can any byte be “priced” if the potential number is infinite?

The only answer is that the Internet cannot be priced in the form of data measurements; at best, it should be priced upon the expense of physically maintaining and building the necessary infrastructure. At worse, people may pay a set amount for unlimited Internet access (and the device upon which to access it); at best, a truly open and uncensored Internet would have to be free of charge, in the idea that a well-functioning democracy does not allow economic hindrance to keep critical information from its citizens. I make this statement from the standpoint of creating a truly censorship free Internet—any Internet charge necessarily obstructs access for some people. The question is, how much freedom will we allow ourselves? How deeply do we apply the capitalistic paradigm? When do we charge for the air we breathe?

Equality depends on information. Information is not a commodity such as gold or oil, and so it cannot be empirically priced. Equality is priceless, and the Internet is the greatest means to protecting equality since the Guttenberg press. As a society, we cannot put a price or a limit on information, as to do so is to destroy the nature of information itself; for information is only relevant when we have access to *ALL* the information necessary. Partial information is miss-information, and any form of data capping limits one from access to all the information. Partial information is the same as a book with the last 75 pages missing, or a movie which cuts out right before the ending. If an ISP caps internet access, the result is the same as a truncated book or a scratched disc from a movie rental: the customer has been cheated from the full product. Thus, even if one believes in rapacious, unhindered capitalistic profit, one must admit that the very phenomenology of information and the Internet, make this field impossible to monetize by measurement and still truly actualize. As I believe these facts are self-evident, my only conclusion is that people must chose whether to accept each other as equals, or live by self-imposed delusions of short-term profit and information phobia.

Update: 3/13/2012

Please see the petition on Change.org stop data capping: http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-data-capping

UPDATE 12/2014:

Please see an article on a related topic also published on this blog: “Why Downloading Online Media Is Never Piracy or Theft,” by David K. Smith.

Update 5/26/2016:

Someone remarked in regards to this article that data capping was not “censorship,” it was merely the telecom companies trying to squeeze every last dime out of the customer. I personally do not see these assertions as dichotomous: the result is merely commercial censorship.

About David K. Smith

David K. Smith is the artist behind DKS Media Solutions, a freelance multimedia firm based in Downtown Los Angeles. He focuses on creating images of the passion inherent in the world and its people.
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5 Responses to Why Data Caps Are Censorship (by David K. Smith)

  1. Pingback: Customers Launch Petition Drive With Change.org to Stop Data Capping | Stop the Cap!

  2. Rob Horvath says:

    In Canada or USA, are there any class action law suits in progress over this form of censorship? I would support a class action law suit.

  3. I don’t know of any class action lawsuits regarding this issue as of yet. AT&T did recently settle a $100 million class action lawsuit in regards to DSL speeds – you can read about it at Stop the Cap.org: http://stopthecap.com/2010/05/05/att-to-settle-lawsuit-over-dsl-speeds-customers-get-up-to-2-90-a-month-law-firm-gets-11-million/

  4. Pingback: Why Data Caps Are Censorship (by David K. Smith) – Pingie.com

  5. Pingback: Why Data Caps are Censoring the Internet | Curtis Ryals Reports

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