Submitted by anonymous on October 16, 2006 - 9:46am
On October 25, 2006, the IMC will host a public forum on Network Neutrality. Here's some background:
No Room for Neutrality on Net Neutrality
Victor Pickard & Sascha D. Meinrath
Imagine the Internet as being like cable television. To access websites of your choosing, you’ll have to pay extra to your Internet service provider (ISP). To put up your own website or blog, you’ll have to pay an additional surcharge to ensure that your website is easily accessible to your friends. If your ISP has a special relationship with, for example, Barnes & Noble, then you may not be able to easily access its rival Amazon.com, or independent booksellers like Pages for All Ages. There’s even a chance that your ISP will decide to block certain content (like political websites challenging its authority) or ban certain devices (like free Internet phone service)––all for your own good, of course.
If powerful interests get their way, this nightmare scenario could easily become the new reality. Up until now, a safeguard called “net neutrality” has prevented this from happening. But at this very moment, the fate of net neutrality rests on legislation pending in Congress.
The debate over whether to preserve net neutrality has become one of the most contentious policy issues of 2006. What began as an obscure telecom policy debate has spilled outside the rarefied airs of Congressional committees and the Federal Communications Commission to rage across the blogosphere as well as the business, editorial, and front pages of major newspapers, YouTube videos and multiple episodes of The Daily Show. Meanwhile, as Congress debates whether network neutrality protections should be written into current legislation, the battle lines have been drawn between large telecommunications companies who own the Internet pipes (like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast) on one side, and Internet content companies (like Google and Yahoo) and public interest groups (like Free Press and Consumers Union) on the other.
But what exactly is net neutrality, and why the fuss? A tremendous amount of time, energy, and money is being spent to convince the public that it’s a highly technical and complex issue––when in fact, net neutrality rests on core democratic principles that have guided U.S. telecommunications development for decades. Referred to by some commentators as the “First Amendment of the Internet,” net neutrality is broadly defined as the non-discriminatory interconnection of communication networks. This allows Internet users to both access the content and run the services, applications, and devices of their choice, while forbidding preferential treatment by network operators. In other words, net neutrality prevents network operators like AT&T and Comcast from acting as gatekeepers and ensures that all users have access to the content of their choice. Net neutrality is the foundation for the Internet as we know it and has created the most vibrant communications medium of our generation.
Historically, net neutrality principles have encouraged rapid innovation and safeguarded the openness of the Internet. Stemming from telephone system development, the principle of “common carriage” mandated that telephone operators could not discriminate against certain types of content and could not treat different customers differently. Moreover, telephone companies, given their monopoly status, were forced to lease their lines to competitors. These provisions were transferred to the Internet. But as the cable television industry got into the Internet game, it brought a different model. It lobbied the FCC to categorize cable broadband as an “information service” and not a telecommunications service, thus arguing that it should be exempt from common carriage requirements. This move was contested in the courts until, on June 27, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled (in the infamous Brand X decision) to allow the FCC to “deregulate” Internet service provision and phone lines, allowing service providers to refuse access to their networks.
These decisions marked a dramatic departure from nearly a century of telecommunications policy making. With the removal of the foundational democratic principle of common carriage, telecommunications companies have signaled that they are eager to create tiered Internet services paralleling the cable television business model. According to this “pay to play” model, those who “ante up” will reside in an Internet superhighway, while those who don’t are relegated to a one-lane dirt road. Even though content providers are already paying for access to the Internet, network owners want to charge them a second time to have speedy delivery of their media. Lest there be any doubt about the intentions of these companies to set up tollbooths on the Internet, the ever impolitic CEO of AT&T, Ed Whitacre, offered his point of view to Business Week, saying “For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to use these pipes for free is nuts!”
In addition to large content providers like Google, Internet retailers like Amazon and eBay, and software makers like Microsoft, large swathes of the public across the political spectrum have formed a diverse coalition in support of saving net neutrality. Net neutrality is supported by mainstream organizations like AARP, the League of Women Voters, and the American Library Association, as well as right-wing groups like the Christian Coalition, National Religious Broadcasters, and Gun Owners of America, and left-leaning groups like Move On and Code Pink. Net neutrality advocates count among their chief backers the “Father of the Internet,” Vint Cerf, and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.
Unfortunately, the public discourse on this issue has been polluted by over 100 million dollars spent by telecom industry groups. In addition to campaign contributions and armies of lobbyists hounding key congressional offices, this money supports an extensive network of coin-operated think tanks, propaganda both in and outside the Beltway, industry-funded academics and PR flacks, and a bumper crop of aptly named “Astroturf groups”––fake grassroots organizations like netcompetition.org and “Hands Off the Internet.” These machinations combine to obscure structural linkages (like the relationship between market failures and the digital divide) by obfuscating the terms of debate, ignoring empirical analysis that undermines their position, and outspending pro–network neutrality advocates 1,000 to 1. As has happened with other important social issues such as global warming and evolution, these efforts help create a façade of contention, needlessly problematizing issues that are already settled in the scientific community, and propping up positions that would be discredited in any rational conversation or objective analysis.
The corporate capture of this public discourse is thrown into stark relief when certain sobering facts are considered. A recent report on the state of broadband connectivity showed the U.S. ranking globally 16th in broadband penetration and 15th in growth––a precipitous decline in just a few short years from being the number one connected country on Earth. This same report found that consumers in other countries enjoy broadband connections that are both far cheaper and an order of magnitude faster than what is available in the U.S. Thus, Americans pay nearly 200% as much as the Japanese for broadband speeds that are less than 5% as fast.
If the U.S. had true competition in service provision, the loss of net neutrality would be less dire. In a competitive business environment, if one company engages in price gouging, or blocking/degrading content, the consumer could simply switch to another provider. But the sad truth is that most Americans live in monopoly or duopoly markets where their only choice is often between one cable provider and one DSL provider––an inconvenient fact that’s often left out of the equation.
But it’s relatively easy to identify purveyors of misinformation in this domain. Opponents of net neutrality almost always turn to one of several basic rhetorical themes. First, they point out that there’s never been pure net neutrality. Technically, this might be true in some cases, such as the so-called “good discrimination” against spam, but it completely misses the point. Introducing the logic of tiering will irreparably change the end-to-end logic of the Internet.
Second, opponents of net neutrality argue that fears of content blocking and a tiered Internet are unfounded and we should wait until it becomes a problem before we invite the government to intervene. Yet already there’s been extensive documentation of abuse of power from network owners. For example, in 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked DSL customers from using its rival Vonage’s Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services. In 2005, the Canadian telecom corporation Telus blocked its users from accessing a pro-union website during a Telus labor dispute. And in 2006, Time Warner blocked a mass-email campaign from its customers that was critical of AOL’s proposed tiered email system.
Third, net neutrality opponents argue that creating a new category of preferential services will allow the telecoms to raise revenue necessary for building out and innovating new infrastructure. However, there’s much evidence to refute this claim, especially the excesses systematically documented in Bruce Kushnick's book The $200 Billion Broadband Scandal, which shows that even when publicly subsidized, the telecom industry diverts money away from infrastructure toward its profit margins.
Fourth, when all else fails, they trot out the tired bogeyman of regulation. A prevailing myth characterizes the Internet as some Wild West frontier bereft of regulation, when, in fact, the Internet has always been highly regulated by both the government and other forces. In other words, there are many kinds of regulation. To lose net neutrality would remove a governmentally enforced safeguard and allow corporations to regulate the content we receive online as they see fit.
Looking ahead, the stakes are even higher. In the coming years, with increased convergence and decreased numbers of market players, Americans will be forced to rely on single providers to deliver so-called “triple play”––Internet, television, and phone––via one pipe to each household. This creates the potential for one telecom giant to take control over all of these media––not just in terms of pricing, but, without net neutrality, gate-keeping power over all content as well.
The situation in Congress right now, at least on the surface, looks promising for net neutrality advocates. Though anti–net neutrality legislation passed the House, it’s been tied up in the Senate. However, many observers believe that industry-backed legislators may try to sneak anti-neutrality legislation through during the coming “lame-duck” session after the November elections when Congress is less accountable. Now more than ever, the public needs to pay attention to net neutrality and other key media issues (for example, the media ownership debate that will be raging at the FCC this fall and winter).
The net neutrality debate is fundamentally about nothing less than the future of the Internet. Ultimately it has less to do with ownership and control of wires and everything to do with the health of American and global democracy. Without net neutrality, what was once heralded as a great global resource for promoting diversity, civic participation, and freedom will be reduced to little more than a profit-making instrument with special benefits for a privileged few. Considering the public subsidies lavished on telecom companies over the decades, it’s high time we begin a national conversation that renegotiates the social contract between telecom providers and the public, and demand that social benefits, not private profits, be first and foremost in our national telecommunications objectives.
The degree to which the public has mobilized around this issue is unprecedented in modern telecommunications history. But there is much more to be done. Everything that we cherish about the Internet––especially its openness and democratic potential––is under attack. Every one of us needs to contact our members in Congress and urge them to ignore the telecom lobbyists and do what’s best for their constituents. At this critical juncture in the development of the Internet, our actions will reverberate for generations to come.