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The real issues of Net neutrality


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The CEO of a cybersecurity company woke up in a bad mood earlier this month, so he decided to kick neo-Nazis off the internet.

Cloudflare, which protects websites from being shut down by attacks, had been selling its service to the Daily Stormer, a long-time cyber outpost for racists, bigots and hate. After the violence and death in Charlottesville, Va., Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince was determined to cut them off.

By his own assessment, it was a personal and arbitrary choice.

"This was my decision," Prince wrote in an email to his staff. "Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are a******* and I'd had enough."

Any good-hearted person in his position probably would have done the same thing - but was it the right thing? As Prince told his company, this decision opens the door to ramifications we can't yet predict.

"Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn't be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power."

The dark corners of the internet have become a refuge for the vilest forms of white supremacy and home-grown fascism. There they can fester and grow unencumbered until, as we saw in Charlottesville, they reappear in public light bearing torches and firearms.

Shutting them down online helps get to the source of so much hate in our society, but who gets to make that call?

"We need to have a discussion around this, with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zuckerberg], that shouldn't be what determines what should be online," Prince told Gizmodo, a technology and science blog.

"I think the people who run The Daily Stormer are abhorrent. But again I don't think my political decisions should determine who should and shouldn't be on the internet."

Today we may celebrate the fact that hate groups are being driven out of cyberspace - good riddance. How do we guarantee that web companies don't exploit this power to stifle free speech?

This conversation shows why net neutrality policy is so important.

Major telecommunications companies, like AT&T and Comcast, control the underlying network that powers the internet. Websites like Facebook and Twitter provide a powerful service on top of that network. But if those websites start censoring conversations or booting users, there's always room for a competing upstart. Don't like Google? Try Bing.

However, because they control internet service itself, telecoms have the ability to shut down the upstarts. It would be as if a power company could charge people more, or deny electricity service, based on its own arbitrary standards.

Don't like it? You probably don't have much choice. Nearly half of all U.S. households have only one option for wired broadband service.

In the 21st century, internet access has become another must-have utility. It should be regulated like one. Companies like Cloudfare can choose their users - that option shouldn't be available to Comcast or AT&T.

The likes of Prince, Zuckerberg and Bezos need to have a public conversation about the role they play in fighting hate groups and protecting freedom of expression.

Telecoms, on the other hand, just have to ensure the internet works.

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