AUSTIN, Texas--U.S. Sen. Al Franken wants tech savvy entrepreneurs to keep pushing Congress to protect Net neutrality.
Franken (D-Minn.), a comedy writer, author, and radio talk show host turned senator, spoke to attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) conference here today where he urged them contact their representatives in Congress and let them know that protecting a free and open Internet is important. He also wants this community of creative business people to attend rallies and do all they can to raise awareness of the issue.
In his speech, he railed against big broadband service providers, such as Comcast, and accused them of plotting the demise of video streaming provider Netflix. He said that the "endgame for Comcast is to put Netflix out of business entirely, leaving you with no choice except Comcast's programming."
He said he doesn't want to change the Internet, but he warned that without rules of the road, big companies could dictate which Web sites people go to and could ultimately limit the content that's on the Net. Franken's fear is that big cable and telecom providers are looking to shut out smaller content providers by forcing them to pay extra to have their content delivered to consumers. In this type of Internet, consumers would pay more and have far fewer choices in the content they could access.
In essence, he said big cable and telcos would kill the one creative outlet left to independent musicians, filmmakers, and other creative types.
"Let's not sell out," he urged the audience. "And let's not let the government sell us out. Let's fight for Net neutrality. Let's keep Austin weird. Let's keep the Internet weird. Let's keep the Internet free."
Franken has been publicly advocating for Net neutrality regulation since his questioning of then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in 2009. Franken has described Net neutrality as the most important free speech issue of our time. Earlier this year, Franken and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced the Internet Freedom, Broadband Promotion, and Consumer Protection Act of 2011, which would put the Federal Communications Commission's Net neutrality principles into law.
CNET sat down with Franken here before his speech. Below is an excerpt of the conversation in which he shared more of his views on Net neutrality.
Q: There are no official Net neutrality regulations today, and yet people with Internet service in the U.S. can go to any Web site they want. There have been no complaints of providers blocking traffic or preventing people from accessing content, so what exactly is your fear?
Franken: I'm concerned about the concentration of ownership over the pipes. And I'm worried about the stated intention or desire of the big providers to implement paid prioritization. That would really change the rules of the road. My desire is to essentially keep the rules of the road the same for the Internet so that we can continue to have an open and free Internet.
There are fewer and fewer Internet service providers that own the pipes of the Internet. And they want to set up a fast lane so that you get information and they want content owners to pay them to deliver their traffic.
But service providers already offer paid prioritization services to businesses. They have for years. How is this different?
Franken: I'm talking about consumer services. If you are home and you have Internet access from Comcast, you get e-mails from your crazy uncle as fast as you get them from President Obama. What I am afraid of is that service providers are going to charge content owners. I can pay for coach ticket or first class. And that means that the normal consumer is not getting all information at the same speed. If you look at how YouTube was started over a pizza shop, if GoogleTV had been able to pay for faster service there would be no YouTube. What I am saying is that this would kill innovation. I want to keep the Internet the way it's been so that consumers get material on a neutral basis.
I know you weren't in favor of the Comcast merger with NBC. How does this merger affect Net neutrality? Are the two things related at all?
Franken: Yes, the issues are related. Once you have more concentration, you have fewer and fewer companies that essentially own the pipes. Then you have a situation where there are four or five companies that own everything.
But if concentration and lack of competition is the problem, why not do something about the consolidation in the infrastructure and content businesses instead of adding new regulation?
Franken: I opposed that merger. And our legislation--Senator Cantwell and I have proposed legislation that would allow the FCC to pass rules and enforce them.
The thing about Comcast and NBC and how it relates to what I've seen in the past is that you can't trust them to do what they say they will do. I saw that when the networks were given the right to own TV content. They swore up and down they wouldn't favor their own programming and it only took two years and they were doing just that.
Comcast is the largest broadband provider to homes, what if AT&T buys CBS and Verizon buys ABC? Then you have four or five companies owning everything.
When the Comcast-NBC merger was being considered, I had people coming to me, small- to medium-sized cable networks coming to me and saying we really need you to oppose this. But we can't oppose it publicly because we're afraid of retaliation. If that isn't the definition of anticompetitive or isn't a sign that someone has too large a market position, I don't know what is.
Are current antitrust laws and regulations too weak to deal with this issue?
Franken: No, I think existing antitrust regulations are strong enough. Part of our bill says that Net neutrality violations would be antitrust violations.
AT&T just announced usage caps on its DSL and U-verse broadband service. What do you think about that?
Franken: At least that is the user being billed. I don't have as big a problem with that model. The problem I have is charging content providers for access. That separates the content providers by their ability to pay. And to me that is dangerous. Service providers are allowed to manage their networks.
But what about content and services where differentiated quality of service is really necessary? Shouldn't service providers be allowed to offer those services?
Franken: Well, there is going to be a need for this with services like telemedicine. There will have to be the ability to provide that.
Telemedicine is one service. What about services we haven't even thought of yet? If you pass regulation now, won't that potentially limit innovations for other services in the future that haven't even been dreamed up yet?
Franken: I don't think so. We know telemedicine is one thing that needs that high priority. And there will be room to allow for other things.
Cable companies and phone companies essentially agreed to most of what Net neutrality backers were asking for in the FCC's new rules on the wireline side. And Comcast agreed to these provisions in its deal with NBC. Isn't the real issue that wireless was left out of the FCC's regulations?
Franken: That is part of the problem, but just because they (Comcast and other service providers) say now that they agree with the rules, doesn't mean they will abide by them later. It's comparable to what the networks did with "Fin-Syn," or "Financial Interest in Syndication" rules. These rules had prevented corporations that owned the pipelines over which content was distributed on TV--broadcast networks--from owning that content. Broadcasters asked that to be rescinded and once it was, they went back on what they promised. Now, independent fiction TV went from being 75 percent of programming to 2 percent. There was an actual moment where that could have been stopped. And that is what I am trying to stop here. It was clear to me then as much as it is now that just because they are saying they won't do something that it doesn't mean they won't do it. Network TV executives had the nerve in the hearings about the merger to deny what had happened on Fin Syn. In office, Comcast said they'd abide by the rules that the FCC adopted, but at the same time they went to court and said those rules were unconstitutional.