As I See It: Net Reality
May 30, 2006 Victor Rozek
There is a tug-of-war going on between giants. On one end of the rope, telephone and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast; on the other, software and search engine providers like Microsoft and Google. Both ends of the rope are manned by armies of lobbyists with pockets laden with cash. The venue is Congress; the issue is whether to maintain or dismantle what is popularly known as “net neutrality.” The prize is control of the Internet.
If the combatants are mammoth, so are the stakes. Three hugely important issues surround the fight over net neutrality: Who makes the rules; who will control the operational architecture of the Internet; and, by extension, who will regulate content and access.
Since its inception, neutrality has been the de facto standard for Internet operation, and it embraces three fundamental principles: non-discrimination, access, and interconnection.
As originally conceived, the Internet was intended to be a laissez faire, organic, egalitarian free-for-all; dependent on principles rather than regulations, cooperation rather than competition, and the elevation of the common good over private profit. This last characteristic–the Internet’s systemic ambivalence toward private profit–is precisely what has corporate network service providers twisting their knickers in a bunch.
Cable and phone companies like Comcast, Verizon, Qwest, BellSouth, and AT&T dominate the broadband market in the United States. But the explosion of new devices able to link to the Net, and the requirements of video and sophisticated software, are pushing the demand for broadband faster than the infrastructure can keep up. The pipe providers, as they are known, understand that they control a limited and desirable resource and want to ration it like a private stash of Cuban cigars. Those with means get to light up; those without get Tipperillos. Think of it as a perpetual bandwidth auction: a little money buys you a tiny pipe with a flow restrictor; big money buys all the flow you want. Need to stream video or run interactive applications, pay up or go make yourself a sandwich because without priority access you’re going to be sitting at your computer for a while.
Tiered pricing works well for those in the upper tier, but less well for the cellar dwellers who comprise most of the Internet’s users–anonymous individuals who send e-mails, visit esoteric Web sites, check alternate news sources, write blogs, run small businesses, and look at naughty pictures. For them, says Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration, doing away with net neutrality is “not democratic.” Historically, says Reich, “the Internet has been the place where Davids can take on Goliaths, where someone without resources but with brains and guts and information can skewer the high and mighty. At a time in our nation’s history when wealth and power are becoming more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, it’s been the one forum in which all voices are equal.”
Small voices, many fear, will be drowned out if Internet resources are dominated by the content favored only by those able to pay. A recent Jen Sorensen cartoon captured the essence of the issue. In it, a character is looking at his computer screen thinking, “Hmm. . . this telecom industry PR site loads very quickly, yet the Verizonsucksbutt blog won’t load at all.” If justice delayed is justice denied, then so is speech. Imagine competing with the Fortune 500 for broadband availability. Nor is the problem limited to Internet use. Broadband will soon also dominate delivery of television, radio, and telephone services. Raise your hand if you want Rupert Murdoch determining what you see and read. Or, if you’re actually convinced Murdoch’s minions are “fair and balanced,” how about George Soros as your information director, or Sun Myung Moon?
Online shopping and Morey Povich may have their place, but most thoughtful people wouldn’t position them perpetually at the head of the queue. As a precursor to restricting speech, tiered Internet pricing is a cyber version of the questionable 1976 Supreme Court decision that equated money with free speech, perpetuating a system in which the more money you have, the louder your speech and the greater your access to decision makers.
The pipe providers argue that they need more money to develop widespread broadband availability. In other words, selected discrimination will generate the greater profits that are necessary to spur future investment. It’s a story that might have merit were it not for three countervailing facts. First, access has never been free. Millions of people pay hefty monthly fees for their Internet connection. Second, the 1996 Telecommunications Act gifted these companies with big chunks of the publicly-owned spectrum worth billions of dollars, for which the public received nothing except higher phone and cable bills. Third, the pipe providers have already collected an additional $200 billion on the promise to build a national broadband infrastructure, and have failed to deliver.
In his book, The $200 Billion Broadband Scandal, Bruce Kushnick documents the broken promises made by phone companies in the 1990s to rewire the nation, state by state, replacing century-old copper wiring with fiber optic cable. By now, some 86 million households were predicted to have Internet connections running at 45 Mbps loaded with 500 channels of programming. To pay for these phantom upgrades, the phone companies lobbied ferociously to convince states to strike down existing regulations, allow them to raise rates, and provide them with assorted tax breaks and other incentives. Kushnick crunched the numbers and determined that each household–in one way or another–chipped in roughly $2,000 for the promise of a service that never arrived.
Greed, of course, is not a new corporate aspiration, but greed often has unintended consequences, among them, the sacrifice of the public good. The reasons for keeping the Internet neutral and democratic are all around us, screaming for our attention. As we have discovered, even our own government is capable of spying on its citizens, holding people without charges or representation, paying reporters to spread propaganda disguised as news, threatening the press for doing its job, and doing everything it can to control the flow of information. In a democracy, it’s not a matter of which world view is represented, but it is vital that there be more than one.
What happens when a government desperate to keep its secrets or spin its agenda approaches a handful of companies that control the Internet and requests that specific content be given priority, and dissenting content be disabled? It happened in China, and American companies cooperated. It’s not a stretch to see it happening here. AT&T has already invited the National Security Agency to install surveillance equipment in its facilities, what makes us think it would suddenly grow a backbone when Internet content became the issue.
There is a precedent for institutionalizing net neutrality. In Japan, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, it is a matter of law. Our own House and Senate are currently grappling with different versions of something called “The Communications Opportunity Promotion and Enhancement Act.” Like many such bills, the name is designed to obfuscate its true intention: the primary “opportunity” the act champions is the chance for the telecommunications giants to gain control of the Internet. Reportedly, Congress was flooded with 500,000 letters and e-mails from citizens concerned with keeping the Internet democratic and neutral. Will Congress listen? Robert Reich doesn’t think so. “Don’t bet on it,” he says. “This Congress is not in the habit of listening to small guys.”
But that’s not entirely true. Congressional ears tend to perk up around election time. Perhaps saner minds will realize that the pipe providers and the software and search engine providers are in the same boat and need one another. Having them rowing in opposite directions ultimately serves no one. Former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan said: “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.”
As an outcome for the net neutrality tug-of-war, wouldn’t that be refreshing.