Net neutrality, part II

The web’s not over ’til the fat-cats cry uncle, so pay attention for a minute

Jon Stewart couldn’t stop talking about “network neutrality” on The Daily Show last week. What was that all about?

Great question! Network neutrality is a core principle of the internet that preserves innovation, competition, and free speech. It ensures that all packets of information are treated equally on the internet, whether they are sent by Warren Buffett or by a retired schoolteacher in Kerrville, Texas. The network should be blind to message content, and it should not prioritize one set of messages above the others. This is quite similar to the “common carriage” approach that has long protected free speech on telephone networks.

Unfortunately, lobbyists for cable and phone companies recently made sure that common-carriage free-speech protections no longer apply to DSL connections and cable modems. The same lobbyists are now hard at work on Capitol Hill, overhauling America’s telecommunication infrastructure. They hope to implement a multi-tier pricing system that would allow internet providers to offer a different level of service to their wealthiest and most influential clients. Many fear that this would ultimately muzzle bloggers, artists, schoolteachers, and anyone who has something important and/or controversial to say.

Telecommunication policy is so boring. Why can’t you talk about TomKat’s baby, like a normal newspaper?

No, really. This is a big deal. Americans on all sides of the political spectrum agree that the stakes are high. Pundit David Tebbutt argues that failure to protect network neutrality will result in “a fast lane for those with deep pockets and a dirt track for everyone else.” Maine’s Republican Congresswoman Olympia J. Snowe agrees, warning that “this is about who is going to control the internet of the future.”

Look, if there’s anything worse than reading boring news, it’s reading news that’s boring, depressing, and confusing. I hear rumors that Superman is gay. Shouldn’t you be doing something with that?

The potential destruction of the internet is not boring. It doesn’t have to be depressing. We still have a chance to change things, and the underlying concepts are straightforward. Industry lobbyists deliberately mystify the issues in an attempt to scare ordinary citizens away from the debate.

Currently, all internet subscribers have access to a relatively level playing field. This has fueled the growth of creative communities, it has stimulated technical and economic innovation, and it has paved the way for the creation of tools like Flickr, LiveJournal, and Skype.

If network neutrality is gutted, service providers will be allowed to establish dramatically different rates, services, and speeds for different types of clients. Established players with deep pockets will no longer have to engage in fair competition. This could have a devastating effect on innovation, the flow of ideas, and the workings of the free market.

Craig Newmark, founder of, offers a helpful pizza analogy: “Let’s say you call Joe’s pizza and the first thing you hear is a message saying you’ll be connected in a minute or two,” he writes. “But, if you want, you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That’s not fair, right? You called Joe’s and want some Joe’s pizza.”

I’m vegan, but I get your point. So who, exactly, is pushing for this multi-tier system?

Well-funded lobbyists connected to telephone and cable companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are leading the charge against network neutrality. In some cases, relationships with key congressmen are so cozy that the lobbyists are practically writing the legislation under consideration.

Their strongest ally, Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, is pushing an omnibus bill that would significantly transform America’s telecom infrastructure. Realizing that Congress will slow down during this fall’s midterm elections, lobbyists are desperately trying to ram their proposals through the Senate while they still have a chance.

Do the telecommunication companies really have a chance? Is it possible that they could kill off network neutrality before the end of the year?

Certainly. With almost limitless financial resources at their disposal, phone and cable companies clearly have the upper hand. Yet, in recent weeks, they appear to be slipping. Approximately 1 million internet users have signed a petition in support of net neutrality, and more than 750 groups have joined a coalition agitating for the same. Twenty-one Senators are on record in support of preserving these core principles, 12 have publicly opposed it, and the votes of the other 67 remain a mystery.

Senator Stevens recently made unfortunate remarks (see below) that generated widespread ridicule and attracted many more internet users to the network-neutrality camp. Perhaps a sign of shifting fortunes, the brokerage AG Edward downgraded BellSouth stock on Friday, partly as a response to uncertainty about network neutrality.

But don’t phone companies have a point when they say that network-neutrality policies are simply another form of government regulation? What about those who say mandating neutrality regulations is the real threat?

Phone and cable companies love to scream about regulation, but they conveniently ignore the fact that their monopolies are the result of government policy. Realizing that most Americans oppose government intervention, phone and cable monopolists dodge almost any policy that threatens to limit their power by labeling it “ham-handed regulation.” It’s brilliant propaganda.

As Cory Doctorow notes in the pages of Information Week, “for these providers to be screaming for the protection of the free market is sheer hypocrisy — they themselves are creatures of government regulation, basing their business on government-granted extraordinary privileges ... These companies are gigantic corporate-welfare bums, having received the invaluable boon of a set of rights-of-way leading into every basement in America.”

Ha ha! That’s funny, if somewhat polemical. What rhetorical strategies are the telecommunication companies using?

Hyperbole, emotional rhetoric, and sloppy thinking are found on all sides of the debate, but opponents of network neutrality seem to be more systematic in their distortions of the truth. For example, the site Hands Off the Internet pretends to be a website for a grass-roots citizen coalition opposed to network neutrality, but it is actually a front group for organizations such as AT&T, BellSouth, Cingular, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

These lobbyists also use the time-tested propaganda technique known as “name-calling.” In articles and public speeches, they regularly describe proponents of network neutrality as “quaint,” “paranoid,” “militant left-wingers” who wear “tin-foil hats” and circulate “Mayday rhetoric.”

It’s worth noting that Bill Gates — hardly a militant left-winger — strongly supports network neutrality.

Well, he and Melinda did promise to give away most of their fortune. But this raises an important point. Who else is opposing the cable and telephone companies?

The struggle to preserve network neutrality transcends partisan lines, with liberal and conservative bloggers working together to preserve the medium that makes their existence possible. The leading political coalition is In addition to strong backing from Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, and Google, the coalition is supported by groups such as the American Library Association, the Parents Television Council, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Common Cause, MoveOn, and Gun Owners of America. Dozens of legal experts including Lawrence Lessig, Susan Crawford, and Timothy Wu have also attached their names to the effort.

Of course, Google, Microsoft, and other technology companies have a vested interest in network neutrality. They already pay enormous amounts of money for bandwidth, so it’s not about trying to get out of paying their fair share. Rather, they worry that telecommunication companies will use the tiered pricing structure as a way of killing off services such as Google Video and iTunes.

But don’t our Congressional representatives know best? Aren’t our political leaders extremely well-versed in these new technologies?

Alaska’s Senator Stevens, chairman of the commerce committee, recently shocked supporters and critics alike when he made comments that revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works.

According to Stevens, “the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes `and` those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.”

A few moments later, he complained, “I just the other day got — an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially.”

OMG. “An internet was sent by his staff?” And he “didn’t receive the internet for several days?” Hilarious! Someone ought to digitize the Senator’s comments and post them on YouTube or MySpace.

It’s funny you should say that. An amateur musician named Andrew Raff recently wrote a song based on Stevens’ comments, and posted it to his MySpace site. A few days later, after thousands of users downloaded the song, MySpace administrators canceled Raff’s account for supposedly violating the site’s terms of service.

A subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, MySpace is an important cog in the operations of one of the planet’s largest global media conglomerates. For this reason, most analysts believe the action was a targeted attempt to squash Raff’s political message. Two days later, popular outcry forced MySpace to restore his account.

Because of incidents like these, many citizens are skeptical about the ability of cable and telecom companies to responsibly self-regulate. It is yet another example of why it is so important to preserve these principles that have successfully nurtured free speech and innovation.