Friday, March 24, 2006

Neutral Debate

The following are responses to my story, "AT&T Wants to Reach Out and Control You," which was posted by the good people at the new media blog Morph. I have responded to all of the comments made there. And copied the debate below.

It's clear from this that many misunderstand the history of the Internet and in doing so downplay the threat posed by the loss of a neutral platform. I hope we can clear up this confusion and move on to doing what urgently needs to be done:
Posted by: Paulaner01 March 22, 2006 08:48 PM

From a global perspective, how are we supposed to keep up with countries like Finland, Japan, and South Korea if we're going to have our government slowing everything down? I for one don't see new laws and regulations as the solutions to making up the ground we've lost. A manufactured crisis would set us back even further, for no reason.
Reply: It's precisely because of carefully crafted regulations, public partnerships and incentive programs that countries like Finland, Japan, South Korea and even Canada have outpaced the U.S. in bringing broadband to their citizenry. For more on that, I suggest you read "Broadband Reality Check" or Thomas Bleha's excellent article in Foreign Affairs, " Down to the Wire."

The crisis in America is real. Certain communities have found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide -- ignored by market incumbents who don't see profits in "reaching out and touching" low income or rural populations. Don't belive it? Read "Broadband Reality Check" (above) or "Are We Really a Nation Online?"
Posted by: John Rice March 21, 2006 10:05 PM

This is a provocative piece, but there are some serious inconsistencies. How about some documentation of the claims that these other countries have faster connections at lower prices? And...the scare tactics fail to pass a straight face test. There are anti-trust laws that would prevent companies from "cut (ting) off your Internet phone unless you use their service; or force you to download MP3s from his company store by slowing access to outside music sites like ITunes."
Reply to John: Anti-trust laws won't save the Internet from the cabal of large telecom and cable companies that have built their revenue projections upon a plan to tilt the Net to their favor. The Internet's future as a force for change will dim as soon as these network giants are allowed to manipulate the "pipe" and discriminate on behalf of their products and services.

By destroying the level playing field, they will shut down the outsiders, boot strappers and innovators (the Stanford kids who created Google, the Pez hobbyist who wrote the concept for eBay, the Israeli high school student who created the first Instant Messaging service, the Indian programmers who created Hotmail, etc.) whose ideas have revolutionized and democratized all media. For more, read Jeff Chester's reporting at Center for Digital Democracy and Larry Lessig's Congressional testimony posted at his blog.

There's extensive documentation that other developed countries now provide broadband to their citizens at a far lower cost-per-bandwidth ratio than the United States. For more, read Derek Turner's excellent summary at, and this recent report out of Europe. I have access to some of Derek's research. I can share this should we decide to explore the comparison between U.S. broadband and that of other developed countries.
Posted by: oldhats March 21, 2006 08:50 PM

If thousands of people were to log-on tomorrow and Google or iTunes was suddenly inaccessible, don't you think the large majority would take their business elsewhere? The telcos have said very plainly that they will not limit or degrade service on their networks. And even if you don't take them at their word, you have to assume that they know the market would punish SEVERELY the company that tried.
Reply to Oldhats: Your argument assumes that there are other broadband choices in a given market. According to a report last August by Free Press, more than 50 percent of the country has only one or no choice of broadband provider. In a large portion of remaining markets there is only a choice of a dominant telephone company (DSL) and a dominant cable provider. The largest of these have all stated plainly that they see no need for network neutrality rules. For the majority of net users in America, then, what real choices are left?
Posted by: AJ Carey March 21, 2006 07:06 PM

There is absolutely no record of any sort of site blocking or any clear plan by so-called "evil" telecoms to filter the internet. First of all it would be terrible for business: no one would stand for it. And that's the real point. Competetion is what has lead to the success of the internet. Why stop that now?
Reply to AJ Carey: Errr . . . yes, there absolutely is a record. Here are two instances that come immediately to mind (I have more): 1. In 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked their DSL customers from using any rival Web-based phone service; 2. 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.
Posted by: lessgov March 20, 2006 10:24 PM

Villains and victims? That seems awfully presumptuous. Thus far, we have seen no instances of the sort of "site-blocking" practices you describe. People feel very strongly about the Internet remaining a free marketplace of ideas. But this marketplace has been maintained in spite of (and, often because of) the enormous profits that can be reaped from the technology. It has also been maintained because our government (who, as we have seen, has interests of its own) has kept its mitts off the Internet. That is the key to keeping the Internet free and viable for years to come.
Reply to LessGov: This notion -- that the Internet has evolved with the succor of a free market eco-system -- is one of the great myths of its brief history. The Internet itself is a byproduct of government grants and oversight. Until very recently, it had been governed, like all telecommunications services, by a rule of common carriage.

What I am calling for here is not new regulation of the Internet. What's happened is that there has been a radical change in the underlying regulatory infrastructure for telecommunications. Last August the FCC took the final step to remove those principals of common carriage and neutrality from any part of the broadband network.

That neutrality principle has been central to guaranteeing that outsiders face few technical obstacles to build new applications and content for the Internet. Most of the major innovations in the history of the Internet have been made by outsiders -- often kids and non-Americans. That's because the architecture of the Internet, built upon this value of end-to-end neutrality, invited outsiders in to innovate. Now this neutrality -- again, a concept of common carriage that has regulated telecommunications for decades -- is threatened by efforts of AT&T and other large corporations to rewrite the rules.

What will happen if they succeed in removing neutrality from the network? The largest ISPs will auction off the highest value chunks of the broadband network to the highest bidders. The next generation of revolutionary applications and services will find it virtually impossible to compete against those offered by network giants. New media will begin to look like old media, with a few large corporations controlling the ebb and flow of content and services, as diversity and innovation gets pushed to the margins.

This threat to the Internet is not a myth. Unless we make more of an effort to guard against plans to dismantle network neutrality, the Internet's future isn't nearly as open, free and bright as you might think.


April said...

These are all excellent points you make. I'm going to make it a point some time before the semester ends to mention this blog to my colleagues in my Social Welfare & Policy course I am taking at the University of Houston, where I am a graduate student of social work.

Our professor mentioned the digital divide in his book that he co-authored. There are grassroots plans in Houston to fight this inequality. If you'd like the link, let me know and I'll hook you up.

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