The Threat: A Net without Neutrality
The telecom companies are not interested in a "bottom-up" model that would continue to support innovation and participation in the Internet. They already charge for access to the Web; now they are claiming the right to charge for "preferred status," which would result in one company's content loading faster than another's:
William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc. (click here for full story)
In effect, this would create a two-tiered Internet, destroying the "information superhighway" as we know it to make one preferred high-speed lane (with plenty of tollbooths), and a dirt road for those of us who can't afford it. Some content will load faster — and some perhaps not at all — based on deals made behind closed doors.
As phone and television services begin to reach us over the same cables that now deliver high speed Internet, companies like Comcast could leverage these new laws in order to make using other companies' services inconvenient or altogether impossible, all in order to promote their own products and agendas. And although it represents a true worst-case scenario, an Internet without network neutrality would be vulnerable to outright censorship, if these companies decide to make it more difficult to access information they — or those who pay them for preferred status — find inconvenient, such as content from advocacy groups, whistleblowers, or political opponents.
We've seen this kind of discrimination in action:
In 2005, Canada's telephone giant Telus blocked customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a contentious labor dispute.¹
Suppression of this sort could become the norm if we do not act now to defend network neutrality.
The Opposition: Big Telecom Front Campaign
Considering the enormous economic, technological, and legal implications of network neutrality, the fine points in this debate can certainly be confusing. On top of all that, a telecom-funded opposition group has launched a counter-campaign to further obfuscate the issue. Hands off the Internet mimics the appearance of a grassroots campaign, but counts among its sponsors AT&T and BellSouth. The site garners support from many who fail to understand that their message is not in the interests of Internet users.
Their view is that net neutrality amounts to "government interference." They have even put forward the bogus argument that keeping the Internet non-discriminatory amounts to compelled speech, and therefore violates the telecommunications industry's First Amendment rights!
The telecom companies would have us believe that network neutrality is an unnecessary form of government interference. They go so far as to call it "a solution in search of a problem." However, network neutrality has been the standing rule, and in fact we now need Congress to intervene in order to only preserve the vital regulatory function that the FCC has performed ever since the inception of the Internet.
NCAC would not typically support a measure to "regulate" the transmission of information in any way. But in this case, some government intervention is necessary to protect free expression and access to information from interference – not from the government, but from powerful interests whose only priority is profit. COPE's weak language would only grant the FCC the ability to "investigate" and "report to Congress on" violations of network neutrality; we need explicit and enforceable language in the law that would prevent the telecom companies from abuses that infringe on our freedom.
Click here for a debate between "Hands Off the Interent" Co-Chair Mike McCurry and Amazon.com's Paul Misener.
The Solution: Preserving Net Neutrality
Legislation offered by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) would have amended COPE with language to explicitly enforce network neutrality, but it was defeated. This story details that frustrating setback, and includes a useful comparison of the "crowded field" of network neutrality proposals currently, or soon to be, under consideration in Washington.
Indeed, crucial votes will be cast this summer. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2006 (S. 2917), drafted by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND)., represents the best solution, and our best hope, to preserve network neutrality.
Senator Olympia Snowe:
The idea that brings us together is a free and unfettered Internet. It’s vital we preserve, not undermine, the extraordinarily democratic technological network – over which content providers from the largest corporations in the biggest cities in the world to single individuals in rural towns have equal opportunity to reach millions of Internet users.
Senator Byron Dorgan:
It’s essential that we preserve Internet freedom. The open architecture which now exists, and which allows everyone fair access to any site on the Internet, without gatekeepers, must be preserved. That is what our bill would do – preserve Internet freedom, which is at the very core of what makes the Internet so important, and something that enriches the lives of millions of Americans.