On Net Neutrality

I’ve been meaning to talk about network neutrality since it’s a complex, yet important topic, that’s starting to percolate through Congress. The thing that spurred me to go ahead and put finger to keyboard about it was the anti-net neutrality ad I’m now running that is — let me be completely frank — breathtakingly misleading. So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to…OK, let’s go back to the ad for a moment.

They don’t lie, per se, in the ad. But, when they say “Don’t regulate the internet,” they’re being more than a little dishonest. What they really want is for Congress to regulate the internet in a way that favors them.

In the ad, they also rail against “big corporations” like Google and Microsoft. But, who are the biggest opponents of net neutrality? Other big corporations like Verizon and AT&T.

Then there’s the fact that they imply net neutrality is something new, when it’s actually the status quo on the internet right now…but, I figure that if I’ve run ads for the UN, I can run ads for these guys.

Back to the main topic: net neutrality. What is net neutrality? Breaking it down to its most basic form, it’s the idea that these big companies that own the backbone the internet runs over have to treat everyone coming over their pipes the same.

This is not a simple subject. In fact, it’s only slightly less morally ambiguous than Pakistan and India’s conflict over Kashmir, but, let me try to explain it in a way that I hope will make it easy to understand.

Imagine you have a city and a big corporation (We’ll call them Corporation X) builds a plant 30 miles outside of town. Well, Corporation X needs a way for their employees, customers, and suppliers to get to their plant, so, at great expense, they build a highway that runs from the city to their plant.

However, some problems crop up. Other people and companies that didn’t contribute a plugged nickel to the highway start using it and start clogging up the lanes. So some of Corporation X’s employees arrive late to work because of the traffic and some of their customers dump them to go to competing businesses that are also using their highway. After seeing what has happened, Corporation X gets angry about the unfairness of it all. How can it be that they built this highway, but their competitors are benefitting from it as much as they are? How can it be that their employees, customers, and suppliers aren’t given preference on their own highway?

Incidentally, folks, if you think of the highway as the internet, that’s where we are right now. So, let’s go to Part 2 of our tale, where we get into “highway neutrality.”

After getting aggravated with the situation on their road, Corporation X goes to the city government and says, “Look, we’ve spent a lot of money building this road and we’re spending even more money to maintain it. We’re even planning to eventually build a super highway in the same spot. But, we think the current situation is unfair and we want you to give us control over the road we’ve built so we can gain more profit from it. We’re the ones going to the trouble and expense of building this road — so we deserve to benefit more from our labor.”

But then, someone else stands up and says, “Woah, woah, woah! Things have worked out pretty well so far for Corporation X and everyone else. If we give them the right to control traffic on the road, they might put up a toll booth and it could cost everyone more money. They might even refuse to allow their competitors to use the road at all or force all the traffic that doesn’t pay them an exorbitant fee into the slow lane! That’s why we should make sure things stay as they are.”

That’s where we are today with network neutrality and as you can see, there are no easy answers.

Remember when I said the pro-net-neutrality ad was “breathtakingly misleading?” Well, it is. But, that doesn’t mean the big phone companies that are against network neutrality don’t have a point. They are the ones sinking vast fortunes into the internet and it’s easy to see why they’d be angry that their smaller competitors are then able to turn right around and use the network they just built to take their business.

On the other hand, if net neutrality ceases to become the standard operating procedure on the net, it would be a big change that could have an enormous negative impact on consumers. Small ISPs, VOIP phone services like Vontage, and even big websites could really get hurt by this or possibly even put out business. It could also cause costs for consumers in certain areas to go up considerably.

So this is an important issue, but it’s also a hard subject for people to understand. There’s a lot of spin going on, and quite frankly, I suspect that more than a few legislators in Congress are making their decisions on this issue solely based on where their campaign contributions are coming from — rather than out of concern for what’s best for the general public. On the upside, at least there are a lot of real heavyweights on both sides so that the Congressmen being “persuaded” by contributions from Verizon and AT&T can be matched by the Congressmen being “persuaded” by contributions from Google and Microsoft.

Personally? I believe that if net neutrality goes away, the potential is there for these big telcos to monopolize the market in certain areas and greatly reduce the competition on the net that has benefitted the American people tremendously. Certainly, reasonable people may disagree, but you can definitely put me down in the pro-net neutrality column.

Update #1: I changed a typo in the original. I wrote that corporations like Verizon and AT&T were the biggest “supporters” of net neutrality when I actually meant to say biggest “opponents.”

Update #2: If you want to see what would happen if net-neutrality goes the way of the dodo, look at these comments:

Although the lobbying battle has been going on for more than a year, two of the Baby Bells inadvertently touched off an uproar in Washington during the fall with public comments that enraged their opponents and outraged many lawmakers and regulators. In press interviews, senior executives of both AT&T and BellSouth suggested the idea of charging Google, Yahoo, Vonage and Apple fees for carrying their bandwidth-intensive video or music services.

In a widely circulated Business Week story, for instance, AT&T Chairman Edward Whitacre complained that Web content providers are receiving a free ride on his company’s broadband pipes. “They don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires… They use my lines for free — and that’s bull,” he said. “For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!”

That’s one aspect of this, but the other is that anyone who directly competes with a service provided by these big phone companies could be in trouble. For example, the last thing a company like AT&T wants is someone like Vonage using their own network to compete with them for their telephone customers. So, they — along with the other big telcos — would have a lot to gain by trying to put Vonage in the slow lane in an effort to degrade their service so much that they couldn’t be competitive.

They legally can’t do that now, but unless net neutrality stays in force, that may not be the case for much longer.

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