Tangled Web?

Net neutrality activists say the Internet is doomed without regulation. Are their fears justified?

by / November 6, 2006
For thousands of years, doomsday predictions have been a favorite pastime for those struggling to find their way in a changing world. Early Christians saw the fall of the Roman Empire as a sign of the end. Medieval Europe thought the Black Plague announced the coming Apocalypse. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, said an angel told him that when he reached 85 years of age, the world would come to an end -- he died at 38.

One of the most famous predictors of the world's end was Nostradamus. His prophecies inspired countless others who even today predict the end is nigh.

In the Information Age, a growing chorus of activists fears a calamity is set to befall the online world. In the past, many who foretold of the coming Armageddon based their claims on little more than religious fervor or mysticism. Today, however, those who believe the death of the Internet is at hand make their case with a compelling, if emotional, set of arguments.

The fear is that without something called Net neutrality, the Internet will cease to be the open, unbiased and largely unsupervised online dimension we've come to know and love. Net neutrality advocates claim that unless Congress intervenes, the Internet will be transformed into a tiered, prejudiced and centralized network with the exclusive purpose of extracting as much profit as is possible from every user and content provider.

Are these warnings of online fire and brimstone worth heeding? Or are they, like so many in the past, little more than misguided fear mongering?

Not a Big Truck
Net neutrality is perhaps one of the most ambiguous terms yet contrived in an era of technology-related misnomers. The definition of the word varies significantly depending on who is doing the defining. But what it comes down to is whether giant telco and cable companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will control the Internet's destiny, or whether Congress will pass federal legislation restricting the types of business models they may choose to follow.

"Chairman [Ted] Stevens [R-Alaska] has pointed out a number of times -- there is no definition for Net neutrality," said Joe Brenckle, communications director for the Senate Commerce Committee. "And depending on who you talk to, it can mean very different things. We can't predict the future of Internet technology, and we don't want to limit any future innovations."

The perceived problem can be traced to the structure of the Internet itself. As Stevens -- chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation -- infamously put it, "[The Internet] is not a big truck. It's ... it's a series of tubes." The clumsy metaphor was roundly lampooned, most notably on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Despite its silliness, Stevens' visualization of the Internet is at least partially accurate.

Instead of a series of tubes, most people think of the Internet's inner workings as a big pipe, and the need for a bigger pipe through which more data can flow more quickly is a common discussion. Stevens' point was that the tubes are starting to get clogged with too many bandwidth-intensive applications like BitTorrent and other forms of video. And therein lies the core issue.

According to the telco and cable companies, to expand the abilities of the Internet infrastructure and accommodate the bandwidth-hogging applications of the future, they need to charge content providers like Google, Amazon and Microsoft more to support investments in the network.

Net neutrality proponents fear that the telcos want to create a tiered Internet that relegates average consumers to an Internet "slow lane." In addition, Net neutrality advocates believe that unless Congress acts to stop telco and cable companies, nothing will prevent them from degrading or even blocking access to Web sites that offer competing services or that they simply do not want people to visit.

The campaign for Net neutrality is led by organizations like SaveTheInternet.com and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD). Jeff Chester, the CDD's executive director and author of the forthcoming book Digital Destiny, said legislation and regulation are critical to keeping the Internet free from the corrupting influence of corporate interests.

"If we allow what has, in a way, been public to become fully privatized -- which is what the phone and cable companies wish to do with IP networks -- governments, citizens and consumers may find there are increased costs and other obstacles related to accessing government information," he said, "electoral information, and it has impact in local economies as well."

Chester said a free and open Internet is also vital to democracy itself. "It goes to the quality of democracy in the United States and whether there's going to be full, unfettered access to all kinds of communications and whether, in particular, noncommercial, civic-oriented communications will face any barriers. It is ultimately about the kind of quality of life for a digital democracy, which is what the United States needs to strive for in the next few years as these networks rapidly evolve and the mechanisms for digital communications get further enmeshed in everyone's daily lifestyle."

The Great Debate
The Net neutrality debate gives rise to a wide and unexpected array of opinions. Traditional voices find themselves in harmony with some they would otherwise diametrically oppose. The list of supporters at SaveTheInternet.com, for example, includes MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition of America.

Meanwhile, numerous members of the so-called "liberal media" -- including major newspapers like USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post -- have run editorials decrying the push for neutrality regulation as unnecessary. Even The Register, Britain's uber-geeky tech journal, sees more harm than good coming from Net neutrality legislation.

One challenge for neutrality advocates is convincing Congress and the public to legislate regulation based almost entirely on speculation. No one can say for sure that Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon are going to block or degrade access, or set themselves up as gatekeepers of the Internet -- they could, but will they?

According to Claudia Jones, AT&T spokeswoman, the company has no plans to block access.

"There's been no blocking in the past; there's no evidence of it now, and certainly no one can say it's going to happen in the future," she said. "In fact, AT&T has been constantly saying we're not blocking access. The experience consumers have today, they're going to continue to have, and in fact will have even better service. There's been no evidence at all that what they espouse as the fear and the harms everyone needs to guard against are real -- they aren't. It's all a very hypothetical 'What if?' scenario. It's not based on any fact or any experience of that kind of harm being done."

From the carriers' perspective, they are spending billions of dollars to build out the Internet "tubes" and don't want legislators telling them how to run their businesses. However, neutrality advocates believe, as many others do, that the Internet is a public commodity to be protected from greedy capitalist enterprises.

The catch, according to Jones, is that congressional regulation will lead to diminished investment in network infrastructure. It's an argument similar to the one made by Andrew Orlowski, columnist at The Register. In the article How 'Saving the Net' may kill it, he argued that Net neutrality legislation does little more than criminalize good network management.

As Jones said, "If Congress starts to dictate to companies what their business plan should be for their investments, frankly, nobody is going to invest. So you're going to either have the same system you have now, status quo, and in that status quo scenario you have much more video, much more content, you have much more riding on the Internet than you did five years ago. Eventually you're just going to have a traffic jam," she said. "However, if you allow companies to manage their network, manage the content, and build intelligence into the network so that it operates more efficiently -- which is what we're talking about doing with the investments we're making -- then consumers will have a better experience."

Neutrality advocates do have some powerful allies on their side -- and again strange bedfellows are being made. Major content providers are, of course, opposed to the idea of shelling out more money to the ISPs. Google, Amazon, Yahoo, eBay and others have teamed up with netizens to urge Congress to pass neutrality legislation. Even Microsoft, a company routinely ridiculed in online circles, has joined the grass-roots effort, and the issue has come to something of a standoff.

Net neutrality also has become extremely politicized with Republicans and the ISPs on one side, and the Democrats and activists (and Google, Amazon and co.) on the other. In June, the competing interests squared off in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among the notable speakers were Vinton Cerf, vice president of Google, and David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast.

Google has long been perceived by Net regulars as a tech company that, despite its colossal size and bankroll, keeps close ties to the little guys. Cerf's testimony may have been tailored to maintain that perception. After all, Google and other content providers stand to make tremendous profits if they are not required to invest in the Internet's infrastructure.

"The carriers have both the ability and the stated desire to dictate how consumers and producers can utilize the on-ramps to the Internet," Cerf told the committee. "Their executives have made their intentions clear: to artificially reduce access to capacity by creating big private pipes and small public pipes; to raise costs of application service providers (some of whom may be competing with the broadband carriers in providing value-added services to consumers) by 'double-charging' for carrying traffic; and to leverage market power by unilaterally prioritizing packets on the Internet. Whether acting as a bottleneck, a toll-taker, or a gatekeeper, the broadband carriers propose to transform the Internet into something akin to a closed and proprietary system of centralized control."

Later in his testimony, Cerf added that Google cares passionately about the future of the Net. "Not just for itself, but because of all the other potential Googles out there, who in turn will spur the growth of online activity. And yet, the Internet's neutrality by itself cannot guarantee an open network and innovation without permission."

Cohen's testimony was much more optimistic. Much of it was spent attempting to defuse one of the advocates' favorite arguments -- that cable and telephone companies have a monopoly, and therefore market forces won't prevent them from squeezing every last cent from customers and content providers.

Cohen claimed that "almost every home in America can choose from at least three multichannel video providers, and with the entry of the Bells into video, those choices will grow." However, that does not mean most homes have a choice of broadband providers.

According to Cohen, current antitrust laws are adequate to defend consumers against the tyranny of monopolies.

"My main request would be that Congress continues to place its faith in pro-competitive, deregulatory communications policies," Cohen told the committee. "I urge you to let the marketplace continue to work its magic, backstopped -- as always -- by the antitrust laws ... all of the hand-wringing about potential abuses is based on speculation, not facts, and much of it comes from advocates who have predicted 'the end of the Internet as we know it' for years, and who have been consistently wrong."

False Alarm?
This summer, several Net neutrality bills came and went -- most going down in defeat in Republican-controlled committees. However, there does appear to be some cooperation under way. House Resolution 5417 -- sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers, D-Mich. -- makes it a violation for a broadband provider to fail "to provide its services on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms;" and to refuse "to interconnect its facilities with those of another service provider on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms."

In addition, providers may not engage in "blocking, impairing, discriminating against or interfering with any person's ability to use a service to access or provide lawful content, applications or services over the Internet (or imposing an additional charge to avoid such prohibited conduct)."

A source close to the issue who asked to remain anonymous said that the Senate Communications Act of 2006 -- currently in the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Stevens -- includes an Internet consumer bill of rights that basically says, "You get what you pay for." If a consumer purchases a 500 Kbps connection from a provider, that provider may not degrade or limit the service to anything under 500 Kbps.

But, the source said, the bill does not seek to regulate ISP business models -- one of the sticking points for Net neutrality activists. They want legislation that essentially forces the carriers to treat every packet of data equally. This would ensure, they say, a fair and equal Internet experience for everyone. Neutrality opponents say this would cripple innovation and investment, leaving the Internet in status quo limbo.

"This debate is really all about dueling visions of the future of the Internet," said Scott Cleland, chairman of NetCompetition.org, a Web site devoted to dispelling claims for Net neutrality. "Net neutrality thinks the way to keep the Internet free and open is government regulation and oversight. It's clever use of terminology. But there's nothing neutral about the Internet. There are vast disparities of usage; on price, speed; between technologies; on how these industries are regulated or have been regulated in the past; between how applications work and need to work; and lastly in the way different players align and negotiate with other businesses."

Craig Aaron, communications director at rival Web site www.Freepress.net, could not be of a more different opinion. Aaron said the Internet always has been a neutral environment and must continue to be.

"We're entering this new era and there's a question as to whether Congress is going to step in and reinstate this idea of Net neutrality that's always been with us, or whether they're going to hand over that control to the network owners -- the phone and cable companies -- and allow them to build their two-tiered Internet, and discriminate and undercut the competition," he said. "The phone and cable companies are proposing they should be able to decide who gets the priorities. And the way they're going to decide is whether they already own it or whether somebody pays them enough to be able to get that first spot in line. And that's where I think we put this free and open Internet really in jeopardy."

Though soundly defeated on some bills and suffering narrow defeats on others, Net neutrality activists are not through, according to people like Chester and Aaron. The skirmishes waged this summer may be only a precursor to larger battles down the road.

However it turns out, people must ask themselves one basic question: Who would I rather control the Internet -- big business or big government? There is far too much income to be made for the telco and cable companies to remain totally hands off, and likewise, far too much potential for corruption and antitrust activity for government to ignore the issue. The Sensenbrenner-Conyers proposal seems a reasonable compromise, and having a consumer bill of rights is a fine idea. But the Internet inspires passions like no other medium before it -- meaning the road to compromise will likely be a long one.
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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