One argument over net neutrality is the fear that the large Cable TV providers like Comcast controlling internet access as ISPs could charge for various levels of service on the internet in tiers, like they do with Cable TV services. Some people object to that because they believe "the internet should be free."
Entertainment such as radio and television started out as broadcast media, in that you had a receiver in your home to receive the signals broadcast by the local stations. Television grew out of radio. In the early days of television, the 1930s and 1940s, the successful television networks were the ones that started with radio networks.
There are still "free" televisions stations in that you can find many local stations that broadcast a signal through the air that you can receive. Cable TV was initially created to provide television service to areas that did not receive a good broadcast signal. As cable TV expanded in the 1960s and 1970s the Cable TV operators began to add extra channels to their systems that were not derived from broadcast signals.
The internet of today is the next step in the evolution of entertainment. The internet is new way to deliver various content to your homes through wires provided by your Cable TV company that were once used just to deliver television service. Satellite services once developed to compete with cable TV services now also deliver internet access. Radio has also expanded beyond the traditional through the air broadcasting to satellite radio and internet radio.
Broadcast radio is only free in the sense that you do not pay an ongoing fee to listen to the radio. But you pay for in the sense that you listen to advertising that is paid for by someone else. With cable television you are paying for the convenience of having a clear television signal delivered to your home through a wire. The programming is paid for in various ways, sometimes strictly by advertising, just like in the days of broadcasting. Sometimes the programming is paid for by fees through the cable services provider for carrying the channel. In the case of premium services like HBO or Showtime, you get to watch them commercial free, but you pay a premium, as in a charge to view them, that offsets the revenue that the commercials would raise.
Right now internet service providers are providing you with a connection to the services and you are paying for the access just like in the early days of cable TV. There are also premium services on the internet like NetFlix, where you pay a premium to access content, just like you would with premium services like HBO or Showtime.
Gratis versus libre free speech not the same as free beer
I stumbled upon an article about American software freedom activist and programmer Richard Stallman drawing attention to the concept of gratis versus libre and had a massive "ah-huh" moment regarding how this concept of "free" gets twisted in the net neutrality debate.
Richard Stallman is considered the father of the Open Source software movement. Stallman explains that Open Source refers to the preservation of the freedoms to use, study, distribute and modify that software not zero-cost. In illustrating the concept of Gratis versus Libre, Stallman is famous for using the sentence, "free as in free speech not as in free beer."
This dual definition of free can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents.
There's no such thing as a free lunch but you are free to eat your lunch anywhere you want.
The use of the English adjective free often gets twisted because it can be used in one of two meanings. When you say there's no such thing as a free lunch you are using the word free meaning "for zero price" (gratis). When you say you are free to eat your lunch anywhere you want you are using the word free to mean "with little or no restriction" (libre).
The myth that the internet is free
Some people don't like the possibility of the large cable TV providers like Comcast controlling internet access as ISPs where they could charge for various levels of service on the internet in tiers, like they do with Cable TV services. That is part of the battle over net neutrality. Nothing is free.
Traditional radio and television are evolving and expanding and becoming a part of the big picture of media and the internet. If you don't pay an upfront fee to use something, you will pay for it in having to tolerate some form of advertising. If you want a better quality signal someone needs to pay to build up the highway to provide the services, and you will pay for that in service fees. If you want to watch programming or listen to music without commercials, there needs to be a way to license it and collect fees in the form of subscriptions so the content providers get paid for their work.
Part of the debate on a "free" internet is that the concept of free is two fold. You may be free to choose what services you want to use on the internet, but access to use those services is not free from cost or payment.
Graphic: American software freedom activist and programmer Richard Stallman (right) illustrating his famous sentence "free as in free speech not as in free beer", with a beer glass. Brussels, RMLL, 9 July 2013
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