The House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans defeated (34-22) Democratic efforts to strengthen network neutrality provisions in today’s meeting focused on an overhaul of the Telecommunications Act.
The bone of contention: will current Internet neutrality go by the wayside – does it need to be codified? Net neutrality means that Internet service providers and network owners concern themselves only with efficiently moving bits – not with the content embodied by the bits.
Net discrimination advocates contend that some bits are more “valuable” than others. The network owner/manager could block access to content or prioritize delivery of other content, for a fee of course. The entity paying the fee would not be the consumer (at least not right now – but TV used to be ‘free’, too).
Those supporting network neutrality range from gun owners to librarians. Those opposing codification of network neutrality tend to be libertarian think tanks. Those advocating discriminatory systems are telecos and cable firms, in the main.
A Human Explanation
Imagine, for a moment, that your cellphone provider is Cingular and your closest friend has only a landline provided by Qwest. Currently, because of common carrier regulation, each telephone provider must treat incoming calls as though both phones were on the same network, even if they aren’t.
One economic argument for neutrality is classic: discrimination distorts. One argument against neutrality is that of the commons: discrimination may be needed to manage assets (bandwidth, in this case). However, bandwidth can be managed at the consumer side by changing from flat-rate pricing (analogous to an “all you can eat” menu) to pricing based on bandwidth consumption (the a la carte menu).
But even that analogy falls flat. The US has more expensive broadband than (gasp) France – about $20 per megabit versus $1.80 per megabit, according to the Wall Street Journal. So our “all you can eat” model yields overpriced and slow service.
Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, told Congress earlier this year that “allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success.”
Common Carrier, Infrastructure
If you believe that common carrier rules are necessary (the Interstate Commerce Commission was the first regulatory agency in the country and was created in response to railroad abuses that led to the first common carrier regulation), then you probably support net neutrality.
If you believe that the Internet is essential public infrastructure, not a toll road, then you probably support net neutrality.
In January, Lawrence Lessig wrote:
[W]hen the Internet first reached beyond research facilities to the masses, it did so on regulated lines — telephone lines. Had the telephone companies been free of the “heavy hand” of government regulation, it’s quite clear what they would have done — they would have killed it, just as they did when Paul Baran first proposed the idea in 1964. It was precisely because they were not free to kill it, because the “heavy hand[ed]” regulation required them to act neutrally, that the Internet was able to happen, and then flourish.
Indeed. Research the issue. Then make your voice heard.