Net Neutrality (or Back to the Future)

The Senate is considering whether to limit the ability of high-speed Internet providers to restrict access to their networks. The need for such legislation arises from the determination by the Federal Communications Commission that advanced telecommunications services (“broadband”) were not really telecommunications services, but were instead “information” services. As explained in a previous column, these semantics relieve broadband providers from the obligation to provide equal service to everyone who uses the system. This was called Common Carrier Regulation. Today the debate has been given the catchy term Net Neutrality.

The argument that Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem was put forth by Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation. He writes, “There is no evidence that broadband operators are unfairly blocking access to websites or online services today, and there is no reason to expect them to do so in the future. No firm or industry has any sort of ‘bottleneck control’ over or market power in the broadband marketplace.”

Thierer’s “see no evil” stance was effectively thwarted when the CEO of SBC (now AT&T) told a BusinessWeek interviewer, “Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!”

But wasn’t the Internet supposed to be the answer to the limits of broadcasting and cable? Wasn’t the Internet supposed to be inherently democratic? Wasn’t the future supposed to be open and free and full of choice?

For roughly ten years Lawrence Lessig has been warning us of the inevitable problems when telecommunications companies are not prevented from introducing “code” that limits what people can send or receive through the Internet. The challenge created by what Lessig called the architecture of control is no longer merely potential, nor is it a mere bellicose threat.

Once upon a time, back before the United States let the advantage in advanced telecommunications technologies slip from our grasp, we cut down the giant telecommunications corporation, Ma Bell, and required its offspring (Bell Atlantic, Bell South, etc=) to share the wires they controlled with all comers, even competitors

Unlike our global competitors we largely abandoned these policies at the turn of this new century. Now, as was described in a recent forum at the Center for American Progress, in too many communities across the United States, there are precious few choices for advanced telecommunications services. Having given up on robust competition, our legislators are being asked to consider the alternative, namely regulating the near-monopoly telecommunications industry the way Ma Bell was once regulated.

In the paper “Good Fences Make Bad Broadband,” John Windhausen, Jr. of Public Knowledge notes eight separate incidences of blocking access. Perhaps the most disturbing trend is the establishment of tiered service. Broadband providers will decide whether your access or your content will be relegated to the highway, the two-lane street or the one-lane dirt road.

The Internet began as a place where the network was simple and open to everyone equally, the code — the architecture of control — was limited to the devices connecting to the network. As our policy makers turn more and more control over to the corporations given the privilege of monopoly we are losing the innovation and the excitement that brought many of us to the Internet. And when I write we, I mean the United States. As Vinton Cerf, one of the recognized founders of the Internet, testified before Congress:

Allowing broadband carriers to reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for their own services will not give consumers the broadband Internet our country and economy need. Promoting an open and accessible Internet is critical for consumers. It is also critical to our nation’s competitiveness — in places like Japan, Korea, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, higher-bandwidth and neutral broadband platforms are unleashing waves of innovation that threaten to leave the U.S. further and further behind.

Are we not all better off if even the poorest child has full access to the educational adventures made possible by fast broadband access to NASA or the Smithsonian? Are we not all better off if even the poorest grandmother has access to telemedicine services made possible by fast broadband access? Are we not all better off if our emergency workers can connect to terminals in private homes and have fast access to information that would make their jobs easier and our lives a little safer?

Net Neutrality should be a given. We need competitive, fast, redundant broadband service for all Americans. Isn’t that the future?

Mark Lloyd is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress