Net neutrality or Net censorship?

ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson says Dick Armey's criticism of the Christian Coalition misses the point.

Dick Armey's recent column on CNET News.com is long on criticism of the Christian Coalition but woefully short of facts about the Net neutrality debate.

In " Net ignorance of the Christian Coalition ," Armey conveniently fails to mention that Net neutrality was the law on the Internet until 2005. The dramatic expansion and innovation that he lauds existed and was made possible because the law prior to 2005 prohibited Internet service providers and other providers from erecting toll booths on the information superhighway.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court effectively abolished the Net neutrality requirement just last year. Instead of dramatically expanding federal regulation of the Internet, a Net neutrality requirement would be restoring regulation that has existed for most of the life of the Internet.

Armey's argument that secure private-property rights and consumer choice will preserve free speech on the Internet similarly ignores inconvenient facts.

Armey's argument that secure private-property rights and consumer choice will preserve free speech on the Internet similarly ignores inconvenient facts. Most consumers have few, if any, real choices regarding their broadband Internet providers. As these companies consolidate and move to secure their own "private property rights," consumers will have even fewer choices.

The result is that fewer and fewer companies will have more and more control over what consumers see and do on the Internet. If the consumer does not like the services provided by his ISP, he or she will essentially have two choices: Take it or leave it. In a nutshell, this is Congressman Armey's philosophy of the free market.

Finally, Armey asks why the Christian Coalition would support a federal law forcing ISPs to treat pornography the same as family-friendly content. Protection of free speech includes speech with which we disagree. If ISPs are allowed to become the gatekeepers of the Internet, everyone's speech is at risk. Regardless of whether the ISP disagrees with the speech or merely finds that some speech is not as profitable as others, the end result is that the marketplace of ideas will be radically diminished.

We are already seeing ISPs controlling speech with which they disagree. For example, Time Warner's AOL blocked all e-mails that mentioned "www.dearaol.com" , an advocacy campaign opposing the company's pay-to-send e-mail scheme . BellSouth recently blocked its customers' access to MySpace.com in Tennessee and Florida. Net discrimination is real, it is occurring now, and is only going to get worse.

Protection of free speech includes speech with which we disagree. If ISPs are allowed to become the gatekeepers of the Internet, everyone's speech is at risk.

Anyone who feels that Net neutrality will stifle innovation on the Internet isn't paying attention to history.

For example, before the government broke up the company, AT&T controlled all telephone access. You could not buy a telephone--you had to rent one from AT&T. You could not hook up any non-AT&T-approved device to the telephone lines, including answering machines and modems. And, of course, there was a hefty premium to pay if you wanted to use any AT&T devices. There was no real competition and thus no incentive to innovate.

It was only after the company was dismantled, and there was increased competition, that the dramatic innovation we have seen in the last 25 years came about. Now that AT&T has started gobbling up much of its competition, it is starting to yearn for its glory days of absolute control over its network.

On the Internet today, no one is getting a free ride. You pay for your Internet access to your ISP. Google and Yahoo pay huge amounts of money because their sites use more bandwidth than the average blog or Web site. Net neutrality won't change that. What it does do is stop network operators from playing favorites and deciding that the service quality a content provider gets depends on the business arrangement it makes with the ISP.

Suppose Google and Yahoo continue to pay large amounts of money for their Internet access, but AT&T works out a deal with Google. Users who wish to use Yahoo for a search engine get routed to Google instead. Or else, searches of Yahoo are slowed down so much that users become frustrated and switch to Google. AT&T gets to make more money, and the user's choices become more limited. Or you decide to visit your favorite blog. Since the blogger didn't pay enough to the ISP for preferential treatment, you can go have lunch and dinner while the site loads on your computer, if it loads at all.

The Supreme Court has recognized that through the use of the Internet, anyone can be a town crier or pamphleteer "with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox." It is a unique medium for expression.

But the Internet did not get where it is by letting gatekeepers determine what information reaches its destination or slowing the information from competitors. If the Internet is to be preserved as a forum for speech and innovation, Congress must reinstate the requirement of Net neutrality.

 

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