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The irony of 'network neutrality'

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette says a move by certain big tech firms to support Internet regulation may result in customers receiving the short end of the stick.

Over the past decade, the Internet has evolved from being an arcane tool used by academics and the military to a ubiquitous force in all of our lives. Even after the dot-com bust, companies like Microsoft, AOL, Amazon and Google remain vital parts of our economy and the Internet is more critical to our communications than ever before. Much of the commercial success of the Internet came because there was little government restriction on how companies could operate or expand in this new market. For much of this period, the companies that thrived off of the Internet embraced the absence of federal regulation as one of the keys to their success. They have fought efforts by states to impose sales taxes on Internet purchases, opposed suggestions that the federal government establish standards for broadband, and argued against antitrust lawsuits by the Department of Justice that they asserted would cripple innovation.

But, in a switch that only students of public policy with a strong taste for irony could appreciate, these same companies that supported an absence of regulation, and succeeded because of it, are now clamoring for the federal government to impose its will on the Internet.

These companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo, created the misnamed Coalition for Broadband Users and Innovators (CBUI) to push federal regulators to create new government rules that would prevent some broadband providers from teaming with other companies to offer consumers joint products and services.

They argued that such partnerships threatened the openness of the Internet because companies that did not enter into such partnerships would be discriminated against. Their proposal, known as "network neutrality," would restrict broadband providers from offering consumers such deals if such joint relationships disadvantage CBUI members.

Adding to the irony, many of the coalition's own members have entered into the same types of joint product and service offerings that they are now asking the government to restrict. Essentially, they are trying to prevent their competitors from engaging in the same fair business practices that they themselves use to give consumers products that they want.

These same companies that supported an absence of regulation, and succeeded because of it, are now clamoring for the federal government to impose its will on the Internet.
Consumers and policy-makers alike want to keep the Internet as open, competitive and interoperable as possible. It is to no one's advantage to have a computer, Internet service provider or operating system that prevents users from visiting competitors' Web sites or using the software of competitors. However, we also do not want the government to be wielded as a regulatory weapon to further the interests of one group of private companies against their competitors.

Unfortunately, this is what the Microsoft-led group seeks to do. The truth is that if one is concerned about keeping the Internet open?-allowing users to click through unimpeded to any site they wish or to attach any equipment or applications they choose to their hardware or operating systems--then restricting the ability of broadband operators to compete is not the place to start.

In fact, the current unfettered competition between DSL, wireless Internet and cable modems provides a wide array of choices and competitive prices for consumers who seek broadband access to the Internet.

This is detrimental to the environment that gave birth to the Internet.
Currently, users of any of these broadband services can freely navigate the Web without impediment. And notwithstanding the fact that-?unlike the telephone industry--the vast cable network was built with private risk capital (creating, in turn, tens of billions of dollars in debt that cable operators must now finance) the industry has started to provide carriage for unaffiliated ISPs. Competitive platforms such as DSL (digital subscriber line) and wireless technologies, and emerging ones such as the electrical grids, promise to make broadband operators more competitive, and therefore more open than ever.

The cruel truth, however, is that the game at hand here--advocacy of selective government regulations to suit a particular class of industry special interests--could actually do dire harm to an industry that has thrived on open competition and needs that continued openness to foster a recovery.

By effectively handcuffing broadband operators and restricting their rights to forge innovative relationships with other applications and content providers, the Microsoft crew is, in fact, seeking to dumb-down the heart of the network in order to strengthen the power of its own members. This is detrimental to the environment that gave birth to the Internet, this is detrimental to consumers' best interests and, in the end, it is detrimental to the success of the broadband services that the coalition claims it is trying to protect.