No Room for Neutrality in Net Neutrality

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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, 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, Internet retailers
like Amazon, software makers like Microsoft, and service
providers like Google, 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 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 massemail
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.

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