OPINION

Net Diversity Threatened by Neutrality Advocates

There’s a policy issue before Congress so pressing that even Hollywood actors like former “Charmed” star Alyssa Milano are blogging about it. It’s called “net neutrality,” and its purpose is to control what network owners can charge for their services. Such a plan would harm consumers and crush diversity on the Internet.

Milano, who seemed to be mimicking a press release by Democratic Web site Moveon.org, referred to net neutrality as “the Internet’s First Amendment.” This characterization is flawed, as the concept of net neutrality would mean greater government regulation of the Net, leading to less freedom.

Web Access

Proponents of net neutrality assert that if government doesn’t pass laws to control what broadband providers like Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Comcast can charge for using their services, then somehow consumers will be blocked from going to their favorite Web pages. That’s a pretty outrageous claim, given that the broadband market is becoming more competitive every day.

It’s also an odd argument to make given that network owners have specifically said they wouldn’t block Web sites, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would clearly sound an alarm to lawmakers if such an abuse occurred. Indeed, even supporters of net neutrality have noted these facts.

In writing for Slate.com, Tim Wu noted that “the cable firms and the Bells have (to their credit, but under pressure) sworn off blocking Web sites. Instead, they propose to carve off bandwidth for their own services — namely, television — and, more controversially, to charge selected companies a toll for ‘priority’ service.” Wu’s comments help isolate the goals of Net such neutrality supporters as Internet giants Google and Yahoo.

More Service, More Money

It appears that those companies don’t want to pay more for using more services, and they are trying to scare lawmakers into writing each network’s business plans into stone. That would be a disaster and harm future innovation — a situation that consumers have unfortunately seen before in the communications marketplace.

When regulators tried to promote competition in the telecommunications market by forcing telephone companies to share their networks at government-controlled prices, investment in the networks shrunk, and innovation slowed. It was only in the non-regulated area of the communications market that revolutionary new technologies were created.

For instance, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) are two new technological feats that make communications services cheaper and more convenient — but the environment that led to their creation is at risk if manipulative e-commerce companies get their way.

Net neutrality proponents are ultimately pushing for a uniform system of old-style regulation on a currently vibrant medium. That is, by trying to make broadband network providers treat everyone in the same manner, neutrality proponents call for a regime that Precursor analyst Scott Cleland labels “sameness.”

“Applying monopoly regulations to a competitive market would have the nonsensical outcome of outlawing the development of choices for consumers through competitive innovation and differentiation of networks,” Cleland wrote in a recent report.

The Corporate Bottom Line

He’s right — so, if neutrality supporters were really concerned about freedom, they wouldn’t promote government-enforced conformity. Instead, individuals such as Vint Cerf, father of the Internet and now on Google’s payroll, and Vonage co-founder Jeff Pulver push for policies that will help their corporate bottom lines. The House of Representatives Commerce committee recently rejected such pleas, keeping the Net safe from red tape for the time being.

The debate over net neutrality will continue for the foreseeable future as the facts continually get distorted and various star figures show up spouting ideas that don’t make sense. In a country that values free speech, this is par for the course, but that doesn’t mean consumers and lawmakers should allow themselves to be charmed.

“Net neutrality” is code for government intrusion in the marketplace — interference that would harm freedom and diversity on the Net.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


2 Comments

  • One word: hogwash. Let’s intersperse a few cold, hard facts into the equation:
    1) The current state of the Internet is network neutrality. The FCC has come down hard on any carrier who violated it. Neutrality has resulted in massive value creation (think Google, which emerged from nowhere as a competitor to Yahoo… think Vonage or Skype).
    2) Cisco and other networking vendors are <a href="http://directorblue.blogspot.com/2006/02/network-neutrality-what-cable.html">hawking hardware to the carriers</a> that is utterly ominous in nature. It is designed to analyze, filter, meter, and/or otherwise meddle with Internet traffic to financially benefit the carriers. In fact, they almost come right out and say that the intent is to degrade application competitive to the carriers.
    3) The carriers contend that prioritization is required in order to deliver high-quality voice and HDTV streams to consumers. But that argument is bogus. Recent experiences with the high-speed network backbone called "Internet2" clearly shows that "best effort" packet delivery over high-speed networks results in <a href="http://directorblue.blogspot.com/2006/02/is-best-effort-good-enough-term-best.html">more than acceptable performance</a> for HDTV streams and other rich content.
    Lawrence Lessig wrote, "[W]hen the Internet first reached beyond research facilities to the masses, it did so on regulated lines — telephone lines. Had the telephone companies been free of the "heavy hand" of government regulation, it’s quite clear what they would have done — they would have killed it, just as they did when Paul Baran first proposed the idea in 1964. It was precisely because they were not free to kill it, because the "heavy hand[ed]" regulation required them to act neutrally, that the Internet was able to happen, and then flourish."
    Vinton Cerf (one of the Internet’s key inventors): "The remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design. The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services… My fear is that, as written, this bill would do great damage to the Internet as we know it. Enshrining a rule that broadly permits network operators to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services and to potentially interfere with others would place broadband operators in control of online activity."
    Interview with Bob Kahn, inventor of TCP/IP: "I asked Bob Kahn, the father of TCP/IP, and he made the point that the Internet is a Best Effort network and if you change that, well, you no longer have the Internet."
    TechSearch reports: "AT&T certainly knows how to spend its money wisely. It’s donated $1 million to fund the pet project of a Congressman who has vowed to back a law letting AT&T and other telcos hijack the Internet. Is the contribution an illegal payoff?"
    Ever wonder why the telcos seem to spend more on lobbyists than inventing cool applications like Vonage and Skype? Now you know why.
    Go to SaveTheInternet and act: <a href="http://www.savetheinternet.com">http://www.savetheinternet.com</a&gt;. America’s technological leadership position (and, by extension, national security) hang in the balance.

  • If an equal-access internet — "network neutrality" — is a threat to diversity or innovation, I’ve seen no evidence of it. Let’s remember that’s the status quo. And market-worshippers should keep in mind that the internet is not a product of market capitalism. It’s socialist medicine of purest ray serene. The internet is a government-initiated and sponsored innovation which has grown into a gigantic resource, which rather less innovative telecommunications firms are now slavering to exploit and monopolize.
    The internet has been a boundless playing field for innovation, in large part because it is a fair field with no favor. To use the word "diversity," to mean diverse levels of payment and service, is perverse: the internet is a model of diversity in uses and content. We auction it off at our peril. Do we want the world wide web to end up like broadcast, a public resource commodified and controlled by a few mammoth corporations?
    No. Common-carrier status for the internet best serves America, and the world. It’s been the basis for its enormous success. It ain’t broke, and it don’t need fixing.

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