October 30, 2006

Why Consumers Should Care About Network Neutrality

Greetings. In a recent New York Times op-ed, former FCC Chairman Kennard characterized the network neutrality debate as simply a battle between the extremely wealthy and the merely rich, and suggested that it was distracting us from what he considers to be the truly important telecom-related issues.

No matter where one stands on network neutrality questions, Kennard is missing the point -- the outcome of this controversy will affect every consumer who ever comes into contact with the Internet in any manner.

The interests of ordinary consumers and small businesses all too often are left in the lurch regarding important issues.

That's what's happening now in the continuing arguments over network neutrality on the Internet, where anti-neutrality forces -- primarily the large telephone companies and other increasingly conglomerated telecom giants -- are attempting to manipulate the debate to their own advantage, and to the detriment of nearly everyone else.

Starting from their Defense Department research days, the Internet and its ancestors have thrived on providing essentially neutral channels of communications, with the networks themselves not imposing skewed restraints on the actual applications using their facilities, be they e-mail, file transfers, Web browsing, or newer innovations such as audio/video streaming, and many others.

As the Net has become ever more integral to our daily lives, we've come to depend on straightforward access to these services via the many firms of all sizes that currently provide them.

But to the telcos and their ilk, neutral transmission isn't a big enough profit center. They want a cut of everybody's action, as exemplified when AT&T's CEO Edward Whitacre made his infamous swipe at Google and other major Internet services, claiming that they were using "his pipes" for free.

This is utter fallacy and the anti-neutrality folks know it. We're all already paying for our Internet access. Google pays for their connections -- undoubtedly not small change either. Every small business, every family with an Internet DSL or Internet cable hookup -- we all of us are already feeding money into the telecom company coffers. Even if we choose to use VoIP phone services, we're still paying the phone or cable company for the underlying Internet circuits.

The technical term for most of the anti-neutrality argument is simply greed. The telecom providers have watched business models shift around them, and now, true to their roots, are looking for ways to strangle the competition, no matter how skillfully their PR machinery attempts to obscure this fundamental truth.

And if that sounds too strong, let's keep in mind 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" of advanced services only to the most lucrative neighborhoods, rates gone wild as soon as regulatory scrutiny is lifted, and so on.

These guys are virtually the textbook definition of predatory practices. No wonder that it's so difficult to believe them now, and why so many observers feel that laws mandating neutrality -- today, before neutrality slips away -- are the only practical approach to maintaining Internet fairness.

Anti-network neutrality forces have suggested that since a large and powerful firm like Google has taken a strong pro-neutrality stance, that somehow this invalidates pro-neutrality arguments. To be sure, Google has a financial interest in the outcome, but so do the rest of us as well.

In the sort of non-neutral Internet world of which the telecom providers dream, it's questionable that Google, Vonage, eBay, or many other household Internet names could even have afforded to really get started in the first place. A non-neutral Net would likely be a death knell for a whole future of competitive Internet entrepreneurs who might otherwise have brought us a vast range of useful new services. It's very much start-up and other small to medium-sized businesses that are most at risk if a non-neutral Internet regime takes hold.

Ironically, neutrality is one of those aspects of the Net that is so taken for granted that it seems invisible and intrinsic. But the everyone pay-through-the-nose environment that would be the logical, ultimate outcome of anti-neutrality wins would make very clear how drastically such invisible attributes have been critical to the Internet's success to date.

It's unfortunate that the network neutrality controversy has escalated to an emotional level, which indeed can sometimes obscure the underlying facts. But the reality is that this is truly important stuff, and most Internet users 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 cadre themselves, we'd all be worse off with a non-neutral Internet.


Posted by Lauren at October 30, 2006 08:39 PM | Permalink
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