You know, I wasn't really sure that Net neutrality legislation was such a good idea. Regulation of the Internet in any form seems scary, a bit hasty, and potentially dangerous. So I was holding out for a hero--maybe the FCC (PDF link), or just a groundswell of grassroots activism. But I can't wait any longer. I've decided to set aside my misgivings about overregulation. I now believe that we must have legislation to protect the open and equal nature of the Internet, or, sadly, the Internet must be regulated as a utility, just like the highways and the water pipes--and we must have one or the other right away. Why? Because I really believe that the telcos and the cable companies pushing for a tiered Internet will cheerfully turn the Internet into a lopsided disaster of have and have-not traffic that just happens to be filled with perfectly accessible content created by those very same telcos and cable companies. Basically, there's a pile of money on the table, and these folks are proving every day that they cannot be trusted.
Double scoop of double-talk
My warning bells really started dinging when I saw the unbelievably manipulative, disingenuous Don'tRegulate.org and HandsOff.org. These sites are, for lack of a better description, fake grassroots Web sites that are actually funded by AT&T, Cingular, Alcatel, and then a motley collection of conservative think tanks or fellow "grassroots" organizations such as NetCompetition.org, which is in turn funded almost exclusively by telcos and cable companies. Now, granted, everyone's gotten into the rhetoric game. The pro-neutrality folks have their own faux grassroots site, It'sOurNet.org, funded by Amazon, EarthLink, eBay, Google, and Yahoo, and frankly, it's pretty inflammatory and partisan, too. But you know what? It's not outright lies--and these hands-off and don't-regulate sites are filled with out-and-out untruths.
And then, the other day, a commentary on NPR by Scott Cleland of NetCompetition.org was so egregiously false, so unbelievably cheap and manipulative, and so insultingly void of truth or fact, that I couldn't take it any longer. I do think that the telcos and the cable companies are actually endangering an open, public-use Internet. And as much as I fear that regulation could do as much harm as good, I do not believe that we have sufficient competition--thanks to existing federal regulation, FCC mistakes, constant megamergers, plus a market that favors the lobbyists with the most money over the best business plans--to guarantee that these guys don't succeed in doing irreparable damage to the Net. Here, then, a paraphrased transcript of the current tiered Internet propaganda, with my rebuttals for good measure.
He said, she said
Cleland says that Net neutrality is "special-interest legislation dressed up to sound less self-serving. Did you know Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are lobbying for Net neutrality? If they're successful, they'll get a special, low, government-set price for the bandwidth they use, while everyone else, consumers, businesses, and government, will have to pay a competitive price for bandwidth. Doesn't sound very neutral to me."
That's because it's a lie. The only thing that's not a lie in the preceding paragraph is that Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are lobbying for Net neutrality. A "special, low, government-set price for the bandwidth they use"? I've read the Net neutrality amendments, and I've linked to them here, here, and here (all PDFs). The closest any one of them comes to addressing the price of broadband service is Senator Ron Wyden's Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006, which calls for "just, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory rates, terms, and conditions." A low, government-set price? Hardly. No one's going to get out of paying for their bandwidth, and no one's trying to. That's the biggest lie in all of this. Content companies already pay for bandwidth, and, just like you, they pay for what they use. And please don't act like "big companies" such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are out to screw the little guy. After all, it's Verizon, AT&T, Cingular, Sprint, Time Warner, BellSouth, the U.S. Telecom Association, Alltel, CTIA, the American Cable Association, Qwest, and more who are lobbying for the right to charge content providers twice for delivering their services over the Internet.
Cleland: "Net neutrality would be a 180-degree reversal of the government's highly successful program to promote competition and not regulate the Internet. Amazingly, the proponents of this radical change in policy don't even have any real evidence of a problem; only unsubstantiated assertions about hypothetical problems."
Actually, the FCC created principles of Net neutrality in response to moves by the telecommunications industry to block users' access to certain ports and activities--such as virtual private networking. And there is in fact one case in the United States, in which a North Carolina ISP called Madison River blocked DSL customers from using Vonage. As part of the government's highly successful program to keep from regulating the Internet, the FCC fined Madison River $15,000 and told it not to block VoIP services for 30 months. I feel better, don't you? And by the way, as recently as 2005, a BellSouth executive made it clear that the company reserves the right, in the future, to port-block certain IP services. And wireless ISP Clearwire, which operates in 29 U.S. cities and plans to expand to more, was accused of blocking access to Vonage, which has complained of other blocking attempts. And of course, blocking and degrading Web sites, services, and competition has happened in other countries, and I sincerely doubt that our market is so much more angelic that our telcos would never attempt such a thing. Let's be frank. The telcos haven't yet openly degraded competitors' services because they can't figure out a way to do it without regulatory and competitive backlash--or at least, they hadn't figured out how to until they hit on the idea that they could just charge more for reliable delivery and leave the can't- or won't-pay businesses to the wolves. Clever buggers.
Now, here's where things get really breathtaking. Cleland says: "Finally, Net neutrality legislation would be a lousy trade-off for consumers. The consumer benefits would be small, but the cost to consumers would be huge. Price regulation would destroy any economic incentive to innovate and invest in the private networks that make up the Internet. Over time, we would end up with a slower Internet and higher broadband prices and taxes for consumers, less broadband choice, and slower broadband deployment to all Americans. And it would also mean less privacy for all Americans, as Net neutrality would require more government monitoring and surveillance of Internet traffic."
Wow. When your back's against the wall, there's only one safe place to go: higher taxes and less privacy. I'll cheerfully dismiss both of those claims as not only specious but outright balderdash. I can't believe Scott Cleland could say them with a straight face. As for innovation and investment, both sides claim that innovation would suffer if the other side wins, but the history of the Internet itself shows that an open, unregulated architecture encourages a stunning degree of innovation and actually enables the American dream of rags to riches more than any other development in our history.
And since cable companies and telcos are themselves getting into content creation and developing services that compete with the very companies they're trying to charge, I find it hard to believe that they have no incentive to build out their own networks. That's not to mention all the money they'll be able to charge consumers for their faster and faster broadband services. Because, make no mistake, no matter who wins this fight, we'll end up paying more. In that regard, don't believe either side--we'll either pay to build the networks or we'll pay to get the content, and that's the real free market in action.