If you watch much TV, you have probably heard a lot of advertising blather (primarily from the cable and phone companies) talking about ‘net neutrality’ and—at least in this area—most of the ads are talking about how terrible an idea it is. One ad that runs in regular rotation around here claims, in tones reminiscent of a negative political campaign, that neutrality legislation would give Google an unfair competitive advantage at consumers’ expense.
According to interest groups representing the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), net neutrality would set back innovation and hobble the Internet with needless regulation. But this is a merely a fabrication crafted by some very talented liars.
I expect a certain amount of spin and exaggeration from interest groups in their efforts to convince people that their views are correct. I find it reprehensible, however, that many firms and interest groups who oppose net neutrality have stooped to the level of bald-faced lies. The ISPs have leveraged the complexity of the issue to make neutrality look like a bad thing when it, in fact, is what has made the Internet so successful. The principal of neutrality is at risk of being dismantled by greedy ISPs if not soon codified in law, and consumers will pay the price.
Net neutrality is the concept that all data traveling over the Internet—emails, web sites, images, videos, files, maps, blogs, phone conversations, VPN connections, and more—should be treated equally by the network. Traditionally, ISPs have not discriminated between different types of data, but that is beginning to change.
The shift is most evident in the world of Internet phone technologies (Voice Over IP, or VOIP). VOIP providers like Vonage provide inexpensive home phone services that use the Internet rather than traditional phone lines to connect calls. Because these services work (from the user’s perspective) just like any other phone service, but with a lower price, they have been very successful. Many people now use VOIP to get around the high fees charged by regional phone companies.
But those regional phone companies are often ISPs too, since most phone companies offer high-speed DSL Internet. Some of these firms have begun to take an interest in blocking VOIP traffic for their Internet customers because they are tired of losing their phone business to the new VOIP startups. This violates the unwritten principals of net neutrality that have existed since the beginnings of the Internet. The FCC has acted in favor of net neutrality, but the FCC is an unelected body which can reverse its decisions at any time. As more ISPs get interested in the idea of abandoning their traditional neutrality, I don’t trust the FCC to protect it forever. It is time to make net neutrality a law.
This isn’t just to protect the VOIP companies. Neutrality legislation will protect the very nature of the Internet as a place for technological and economic innovation. It will ensure that companies will be able to continue innovating on the web, and thus ensure that consumers will have a rich, competitive marketplace to choose their products and services from.
Many businesses have found successful niches on the web. Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Apple and more have leveraged the Internet to become some of the most successful companies in the world. But imagine if ISPs had the power to decide what data was allowed to cross their network for their own benefit rather than for yours.
In the absence of net neutrality legislation, this becomes a real possibility. If you think that ISPs will stop at blocking VOIP traffic, you are very naive. If Verizon decides to offer an online music store, what makes you think they would restrain themselves from limiting access to iTunes for their DSL customers? If Comcast were to create an online auction site, what’s to keep them from slowing down their customers’ packets to and from ebay.com in an effort to drive traffic to their own site?
Another abuse of power possible in the absence of net neutrality legislation is that ISPs could turn the Internet into a giant toll road. Imagine if Cox Communications demanded that Google pay them 10 million dollars per year or risk interrupting customers’ access to Google services. Suddenly the creation of new technologies and services—particularly with rich content like music and video—becomes prohibitively expensive except for the ISPs themselves.
And most ISPs—baby-Bell phone companies and cable companies—are not known for being particularly innovative or consumer-friendly. I have the feeling that a Cox Communications Mapping Service would require it’s companion application installed by a technician on-site some time between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, while Verizon’s Music Store would sell songs at 99¢, plus a 15¢ data surcharge, 12¢ tax, and a $2.50/month application use fee . . . and the songs probably wouldn’t be iPod compatible either.
So when you see those ads on television, don’t forget who is funding them. If you really trust your phone and cable companies to do what’s best for the consumers then, by all means, oppose net neutrality. But if you are suspicious of their motives—as you should be—then net neutrality legislation should have your full support.
- Save the Internet.com (pro-neutrality; funded by bloggers, non-profit organizations, and small businesses )
- A Guide to Net Neutrality for Google Users (pro-neutrality; funded by Google)
- NetCompetition.org (anti-neutrality; funded primarily by phone companies, cable companies, and related associations listed here)
The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Web.com.