Thursday, June 29, 2006

In defence of net neutrality

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has put a "hold" on a telecommunications bill that, if passed, would allow Internet providers to discriminate with respect to the content they provide to consumers. Very well done, Senator. Do not back down.

Daily Kos's mcjoan has more here.

In the House, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts (my representative when I attended Tufts and of whom I am still a big supporter) has launched his own "Fight to Save the Internet". It's an admirable effort, and you can find out more about it here. His statement in response to the defeat of his "Net Neutrality Amendment" is here. Also very well done, Congressman. Do not back down either.

For more on the issue of "net neutrality" and the Bush Administration's attempts to destroy it, see this recent editorial in The New Republic.

In a nutshell, the issue is this: Under 1934 rules, "[t]elecom companies couldn't charge website proprietors to have their content sent to consumers more expeditiously". However, "last August, George W. Bush's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exempted telecoms that provide Internet connections from these restrictions". What this means is that "companies will be able to charge content providers a fee to deliver their content to consumers and, in particular, an additional surcharge to deliver their content to consumers more quickly -- that is, they will be able to create a faster toll lane on the information superhighway".

Would this be a problem? Not for profit-driven telecom companies, but certainly for both (most) content providers and the consumers of content. In other words, for all of us who don't run telecom companies. And, as the editors of TNR argue, for political discourse and even for democracy itself. With internet providers able to set up a two-lane system -- a fast lane for preferred content and a slow one for the rest -- consumers would be denied access to content equally:

Under the new FCC guidelines, those companies will be able to charge content providers a fee to deliver their content to consumers and, in particular, an additional surcharge to deliver their content to consumers more quickly -- that is, they will be able to create a faster toll lane on the information superhighway. If they want, the telecoms can favor their own services and penalize competitors -- for instance, voice over Internet protocol companies like Vonage -- by denying them faster service. They can even charge lucrative fees to companies for exclusive access to the fast lane at the expense of their competitors, giving, for example, L.L. Bean an advantage over Lands' End. And, by making the fast lane prohibitively expensive, they can force start-up ventures and noncommercial providers (like blogs) onto the bumpy dirt roads of the Internet.

This, presumably, is what the Bush Administration wants. A telecom-friendly Internet that maximizes profits for the telecoms by pitting market competitors against one another. In other words, an Internet that allows its providers to discriminate based on who pays them for access to the fast lane, or in favour of their own services and against the competition, or along political, ideological, or other subjective lines. And many content providers wouldn't even be able to pay the initial fee, let alone some kind of "surcharge".

This isn't the sexiest story in the news these days, but it's an important one with far-reaching ramifications for the Internet as we know it.

We as consumers will suffer. We as citizens will suffer.

Once again, the Bush Administration shows that it is, when it comes right down to it, and whatever its high-falutin' rhetoric, no friend of the free market, no friend of liberty, and no friend of democracy.

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