As I See It: Opinions Are Like ISPs–Everybody Has One
February 22, 2010 Victor Rozek
What do the Christian Coalition, MoveOn.org, AARP, and the Gun Owners of America have in common? On most issues, not so much. Amazingly, however, at least one concern has them standing shoulder to shoulder, rather than nose to nose. What issue, you ask, could possibly unite progressives and regressives, the old and the young, the cross and the gun? (The president, who has been searching unsuccessfully for such an issue, should take notice.) It’s none other than Net neutrality.
I never held out much hope for Net neutrality. Where there is a great deal of money to be made, someone will find a way to make it. And although there are a number of major players determined to preserve Net neutrality, such as (Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon), there is no shortage of corporate muscle on the other side of the regulatory divide. Mega-ISPs like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, and their pet think tank, the Center for Communication and Competition Policy at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, are lobbying furiously to knock down legislation that would prevent them from establishing a tiered pay-for-play system.
Who, if anyone, has the right to regulate and profit from Internet traffic is a question that has become contentious as applications grew to gobble up ever-increasing chunks of bandwidth. Ironically, both sides frame the debate in terms of freedom: the freedom of unregulated use, versus the freedom to charge what the market will tolerate. And although both camps are resolute in their intransigence, three recent developments promise to move the issue closer to resolution.
The first is the long-awaited FCC National Broadband Plan, which is due to be presented to Congress in March. The plan comes in response to a mandate from Congress to give every U.S. home access to high-speed Internet service.
Since, in practice, the FCC is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America, and corporations are divided on the issue, the agency is no doubt treading carefully because any recommendations it makes are bound to anger some of its constituents. Even though the report is rumored to be some 2,000 pages long, it will likely not address Net neutrality directly. In fact, 2,000 pages means it’s probably a 200-page plan with 1,800 pages of equivocation. But somewhere in there, there will be something that–if you twist your head just right and squint a little–will look like a Net neutrality recommendation. Someone’s ox will be gored, albeit gently, and that’s how we’ll know the lay of the land.
Some of the FCC’s proposals have been leaked in the past few months, but they speak more of goals than roadmaps: Providing 100 million Americans with 100 megabit/sec access; providing over 90 percent of the population with speeds greater than 2 megabit/sec; making improvements to the E-Rate program, which provides broadband access to millions of schools; and beefing up the Universal Service Fund (USF) to include broadband. (The USF is a tax designed to bring communications services to the neediest parts of the nation, and the phone companies won’t like it being raised). Hey, that may be a clue!
Another thing the telecoms won’t like is Google creating its own networks. Google isn’t waiting for the FCC’s recommendations. It recently announced its intention to build high speed fiber optic networks in several locations around the country. These broadband networks will be capable of providing gigabit/sec speeds, which is 100 times faster than what is generally available to most Internet users.
It was a pre-emptive move. Google wanted to show the FCC how broadband expansion could work before a solution was imposed by Congress. For its part, the FCC was quick to praise Google. Chairman Julius Genachowski said that he planned to “build upon such private-sector initiatives.” Aha, another clue.
Google further announced that it intends to maintain net neutrality on its networks. And with gigabit transmission rates there should be plenty of bandwidth to go around, ensuring all users will be treated equally. In addition to being pre-emptive, Google’s announcement also serves as a shot across the bow of other ISPs and gives notice to their users–why pay for preferential treatment when you can get it free?
The third variable is the recent Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate money to influence our election process. Corporations are now free to target politicians who disagree with them on selected issues, so a great deal of money will be spent to defeat candidates representing both sides of the neutrality divide (should they be brave or stupid enough to actually take a firm stand). Regardless of the FCC’s preference, the preservation or demise of Net neutrality will–like so many other issues–probably be decided by money.
And you can bet that’s just fine with Congress which, for 30 years, has not solved a single major problem facing the nation. Stretching out the payoffs, Congress will not make a decision on Net neutrality any time soon. Certainly not until the next election cycle during which it can milk the various stakeholders for many millions of dollars. And here’s where the interests of the people get crushed. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that $5.2 billion dollars (private and corporate) were spent in the 2007-2008 federal election cycle. As unfathomable as that number is, it is dwarfed by the profits made by just one corporation during that same period. ExxonMobil reported skimming $85 billion in profit from the nation’s gas tanks. In the end, it’s a safe bet that what ExxonMobil wants–and what Pfizer wants, what Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and the rest of the too-big-to-fail crowd wants–is what will happen.
Similar neutrality debates were held in Europe. Alan Joch, writing for Communications of the ACM, reports that “In May, the European Parliament voted for a package of telecommunications policies, including one that affirms the principle of Net neutrality.” Over the winter while the measures were being debated, notes Joch, U.S. lobbyists swarmed Parliament hoping to influence the vote on behalf of their clients. Since Europe is somewhat less money-centric than the U.S., the efforts to end neutrality failed.
Treating all content, sites, and platforms equally is especially important to the small, anonymous user who will be pushed to the bottom of the performance stack if Net neutrality is not enforced. The larger issue, however, is how much corporate control of our lives we are willing to tolerate? Failure to enforce Net neutrality is the proverbial camel’s-nose-under-the-tent issue. Favoritism, whether purchased or bestowed, can easily turn discriminatory. And once discrimination is legal, where does it stop and who will stop it? How long before ISPs do more than examine packet headers for routing information and seize the opportunity to do deep packet inspection? The question Net neutrality proponents ask is: Using our personal and private information, will ISPs be tempted to profit unethically and punish indiscriminately? The answer is written in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown, the Enron scandal, and a dozen other instances of regulatory failure. They will, because it is human nature to push the envelope and to keep pushing it until someone says STOP.
The Internet, as it evolved, has become parasitic, which is both good news and bad. So much of its content is free for the taking that most creative contributors are challenged to make a living. Writers, musicians, photographers, reporters, developers of every sort, contribute to a world that, more often than not, does not compensate them fully (if at all) for their labor. And yet the Internet thrives. ISPs, on the other hand, are guaranteed substantial and enduring profit for connecting us to that world. That should be enough.
For generations Switzerland maintained its “neutrality” by providing safe financial haven for the world’s crooks and butchers. It threatened no one and was useful to everyone. Its lack of discernment became an institutionalized virtue, a poor model for nationhood but a fine model for the Internet. On the Internet there is room for the poet and the pornographer; the scientist and the Scientologist; the global corporation and the neighborhood coffee shop; people streaming video, and people sending emails. The digital world is perhaps the last place where everyone is truly created equal. It would be a great shame to sacrifice that principle, as so many others have been sacrificed, on the altar of commerce.