Last month, I found myself cursing basketball under my breath five or six times a day. It's not that I'm vehemently antisport or anything of the sort, but I was trying to get legitimate work done, and the network had slowed to a crawl. Why? Because people were streaming videos of March Madness games, and there wasn't enough bandwidth left for quick downloads of my own research on vampire cults in the British Isles. Clearly, my work was much more important than 50 coworkers interested in nothing but slam dunks.
I found myself thinking that this network would be so much better if someone would allocate a third of the bandwidth to streaming video and leave the rest of it for those of us with real work to do.
Their CEOs signed an eleventh-hour letter to the committee arguing that the change to the legislation was "critical." What do these content kings know that the rest of us don't?
Coincidentally, a Republican-controlled subcommittee was considering such a bill for a much larger-scale network. The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee spent March looking at a Democrat-backed amendment
to a telecommunications bill that touted Net neutrality. The amendment was designed to prevent the Comcasts, SBCs, and Verizons of the world from allocating bandwidth to traffic from particular sites. In short, it required ISPs to give streaming video from ESPN or Yahoo the same treatment as text-heavy data from Wikipedia or Reuters, no matter if, say, ESPN or Yahoo happened to wave a big wad of cash at said access provider for the right of passage through the network's fast lane.
On April 5, the committee rejected the Net neutrality amendment
by a margin of 23 to 8.
Frankly, I was torn about this. Fresh from frustrations over March Madness, I liked the idea of blocking off bandwidth for data-heavy usage--making a kind of commuter lane for more intense traffic and leaving slow lanes and bike lanes for slower data traffic. Half of me was pleased that this amendment didn't pass muster. But then the dubious benefits of an unregulated, not-quite-free-market approach floated to the surface. This is not a black-and-white issue, but the prevalent politics of the day are certainly trying to make it one. What kind of communists favor Net neutrality?
Sure, this amendment was a Democratic initiative, and it was taken out of the game by a Republican-controlled committee. But the proposed Net neutrality amendment is hardly an FDR-style New Deal of unpopular nanny-state legislation, which is how the committee seemed to treat it. In fact, it was supported by corporate big wheels such as Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Their CEOs signed an eleventh-hour letter to the committee arguing that the change to the legislation was "critical."
What do these content kings know that the rest of us don't? For most of this millennium, some big content providers have been touting the importance of network neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission. In 2003, the FCC's then-chairman Michael Powell dismissed their concerns
. He believed that preemptive regulations could stifle yet-undiscovered Internet business models.
"We'd hate to see you squeezed out, but we have only five lanes of data traffic here, and we have you marked down for the bike lane, along with Vonage, Skype, and BitTorrent."
A fair point, perhaps, but it left a gap that actually did stifle an Internet business model when a North Carolina network access provider blocked Internet phone traffic
to protect its own VoIP
The fear among content providers, then, is that legislation on the table, stripped of the network neutrality amendment, gives too much power of discretion to the network access providers--and that amount of control, given to networks that routinely forge business alliances with content providers, could lead to what amounts to a shakedown.
Just imagine such a scheme: "Sooo...Google...you want to use our network, do you? Well, Ask.com and Yahoo are knocking at our doors, offering a nice little package for the fast lane. We'd hate to see you squeezed out, but we have only five lanes of data traffic here, and we have you marked down for the bike lane, along with Vonage, Skype, and BitTorrent."
What kind of fascists oppose Net neutrality?
Network providers have received plenty of government help in establishing telecommunications networks, so they should be subject to equal amounts of government oversight.
The trouble with Net neutrality is that it smacks of a vague philosophical approach that fails to resonate with lawmakers. Even if it's clearly stated (seldom true outside of Wikipedia
), it doesn't convey the pragmatism that House members like to emulate to prove that they're in touch with the real world.
With some degree of accuracy, a spokesperson for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association
stated in a conference call, "Network neutrality is a nearly indefinable concept." Brian Dietz went on to pose reasonable-sounding questions: "Does network neutrality mean that network operators can't block spam? Should network operators be allowed to stop viruses from spreading? Should large users of peer-to-peer software be allowed unlimited bandwidth so service for other users is slower?"
Good points, Mr. Dietz. True, network providers are inundated by bandwidth-busters that nobody approves of, and they spend serious money to deal with them. So the networks are hardly the villains of the piece. But that doesn't mean that they should be given carte blanche to open inappropriate streams of revenue. Network providers have received plenty of government help in establishing telecommunications networks, so they should be subject to equal amounts of government oversight. Heck, welfare recipients are, so why not corporations?
Network neutrality is written into law in many other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. What's preventing the United States from joining them? In short, should network access providers take advantage of their position to extract extra money from content providers in return for preferential treatment? Should they tinker with the fundamental principles of the great engine of commerce and communication known as the Internet?
I say not. So do Amazon, eBay, Google, Japan, South Korea, and Great Britain. The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee says otherwise. What do you say? And would you be prepared to tell any of the House members who nixed it
? Should Matt Lake try to be a little more neutral himself? Should he pay extra to get a better information feed? Cast your vote for On the Dot neutrality in the feedback section below--or just share your opinion.