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Ma Bell's Revenge: The Battle For Network Neutrality


Former FCC Chairman William Kennard recently characterized the Internet network neutrality debate as nothing but a battle between the "extremely wealthy" and the "merely rich," suggesting it was a distraction from truly important telecom-related issues. Kennard misses the point. The outcome of this controversy will affect everybody who comes into contact with the Internet, and as usual the interests of ordinary consumers are being left in the lurch. Anti-neutrality forces (primarily the increasingly conglomerated telecommunications provider giants) have been manipulating this controversy to their own advantage, and to the detriment of nearly everyone else.

Starting from Defense Department research origins, the Internet and its ancestors have thrived by providing essentially neutral channels of communications, with the networks themselves not imposing unreasonable constraints on applications using their facilities, from email to video streaming, and everything in between. But to the telephone companies and their ilk, neutral transmission isn't an adequate profit center. They want a cut of everybody's action, as exemplified by AT&T's CEO Edward Whitacre infamously swiping at Google and other major Internet services, claiming they were using "his pipes" for free. His assertion is an utter fallacy, and the anti-neutrality folks know it. We all already pay for our Internet access. Google pays for its connectivity—undoubtedly not petty cash either. Every DSL or Internet cable hookup is feeding money into telecom company coffers. Even if we choose to use VoIP phone services, we're still paying a phone company or cable TV firm for the underlying Internet circuits.

Much of the anti-neutrality argument is simple greed in action. The telecom providers have watched their traditional business models decay around them and are looking for new ways to strangle any real competition, in league with public relations and lobbying spin aimed at obscuring this fundamental fact.

If that sounds too strong, let's remember that the telecom landscape is littered with the broken promises and unfair tactics of the dominant telephone companies in particular—promised broadband rollouts never delivered, cherry-picking lucrative neighborhoods for advanced services deployments, major rate hikes when regulatory scrutiny is lifted, and so on. These are textbook examples of predatory practices. No wonder it's so difficult to believe these telecom firms now, or why so many observers feel that laws mandating neutrality—enacted today, before neutrality slips away—are the only practical approach to maintaining Internet fairness.

The telecom providers' historical behaviors, increasingly restrictive ISP Terms of Service requirements, and the generally lackadaisical or even consumer-hostile attitudes of the FCC and most other related regulators are a clear warning. Outrageously skewed bandwidth pricing, demands for profit participation, blocking or throttling of services that are viewed as competitive, and other punitive telecom provider actions are likely to occur if it's possible to get away with them.

Anti-neutrality proponents have incorrectly suggested that pro-neutrality arguments are invalidated by a large and powerful firm such as Google taking a strong stance in favor of network neutrality. Google does have a financial interest in the outcome, but so do the rest of us. In the non-neutral Internet world envisioned by the telecom providers—with only after the fact, glacially slow antitrust suits as the main possible redress for abuses—it's doubtful that Google, Vonage, eBay, or many other successful Internet companies could have afforded to really get off the ground in the first place.

A non-neutral Net would likely be a death knell for an entire future of competitive Internet entrepreneurs who might otherwise have brought us a vast range of useful new services, especially start-ups and other initially small businesses. Neutrality is an aspect of the Internet that is so taken for granted that it seems invisible and intrinsic, but it has been critical to the Internet's success to date.

It's unfortunate the network neutrality controversy has escalated to an emotional level, which sometimes obscures underlying facts. But most Internet users simply don't realize how drastically and negatively they could be affected if anti-neutrality arguments hold sway. Getting true network neutrality back after it's been lost is likely to be effectively impossible. Except for the anti-neutrality camp itself, we'd all be worse off with a non-neutral Internet, and that's a risk we simply must not accept.

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Author

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@pfir.org) is co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility (www.pfir.org). He moderates the Privacy Forum (www.vortex.com/privacy).


©2007 ACM  0001-0782/07/0100  $5.00

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