An open letter to the enemies of Net neutrality

The sword of tiered Internet service has been hanging over our heads for far too long

My first reaction to the speech by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski about the FCC's interest in pursuing a foundation of Net neutrality was: finally. Finally we might be able to have some backing from the government in a quest for the obvious -- that big ISPs should not have the right to pick and choose what traffic is delivered based on boardroom decisions and the squeals of shareholders. That the Internet should continue to be open for everyone with a connection at home or access to a library.

Naturally, there are those in government who think this is a terrible idea -- namely, Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tx). She has introduced an amendment to an unrelated bill that would bar the FCC from pursuing this action. If this passes, there will be no way for the FCC to fund development of regulations to mandate free and open networks within the United States. If I read the fine print correctly (and IANAL), the FCC would be powerless to control the actions of the big carriers.

[ FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has enumerated six principles to safeguard an open Internet. | Keep up on the day's tech news headlines with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]

The justification Hutchinson uses for this amendment is that mandating Net neutrality would "stifle innovation," and "America has experienced robust investment and innovation in network performance and online content and applications. For that innovation to continue, we must tread lightly when it comes to new regulations." Here is my reply:

Dear Senator Hutchinson:

I'm sorry, Senator, you have it backward. If the big ISPs are allowed to play free and easy with packets traversing their networks, innovation will plummet. Only those companies that can afford to tithe the big ISPs will get to play in the "publicly accessible" Internet, and those that can't afford to do so will simply cease to exist as an entity on the network -- traffic to their sites can and will simply be throttled to ridiculous levels or tossed entirely. Make no mistake: You're advocating and encouraging a legal nationwide protection racket.

Please understand that the Internet is not and never will be a parallel for any other communications medium. It is not analogous to cable TV, it is not analogous to the PSTN, it is a completely separate and unique entity that has nearly single-handedly revolutionized the world socially, financially, and politically. The linchpin of this success is the free and unfettered delivery of data from one point to another. By allowing quasi-monopolies to control whether or not that data is delivered is a most horrible idea.

Please note that I am not talking about bandwidth caps or levels of service; I am talking about the fact that you wish to sanctify the actions of large corporations to deny their customers the right to request information from a third party at a whim, to essentially make large swaths of the Internet inaccessible unless both their customer and the third-party site pay a fee for that information. This goes way beyond putting tolls on the roads; this is the same as allowing gangs of thugs to patrol the highways, shaking down travelers however they see fit. Add in the simple fact that in many places there is only a single broadband provider, and you are essentially giving that provider the right to hold the Internet hostage to their own customers. Yes, their customers can certainly cancel their service -- they aren't required to have Internet access -- but that directly conflicts with your own statements regarding innovation and investment. Without customers, there won't be much of either.

Further, large ISPs have a habit of increasing rates for those who order a la carte services, such as Internet without phone and Internet without TV. They can and will develop pricing plans that make it difficult for dissatisfied customers to use another Internet provider (assuming there is one) without breaking the budget or losing TV service.

I understand that the big carriers are against Net neutrality and would love nothing more than to provide Internet access in a similar fashion to cable TV. It would be a big boon for them. It would also be an unconscionable betrayal of the American people should it come to pass. The big carriers have been given more than enough time (and simply massive amounts of government funding) to build, maintain, and grow their networks. High-speed data equipment and infrastructure are faster and cheaper than at any other time in history. This is the time that we should be working to provide the benefits of high-speed Internet access to those places in this country that are still without it, not trying to impose arbitrary and costly limits on those lucky enough to already have it.

You say, "Where there have been a handful of questionable actions in the past on the part of a few companies, the Commission and the marketplace have responded swiftly. The case has simply not been made for what amounts to a significant regulatory intervention into a vibrant marketplace." Essentially, you are claiming that since no carrier has been bold enough to actually implement a tiered structure, they won't.

You must realize that in many cases we're talking about the same companies that charge more to send a single SMS text message than it costs to retrieve the same amount of data from the Hubble telescope. The terms "fair" and "reasonable" aren't in these companies' dictionaries.

If Net neutrality is tossed out the window, the next Facebook or the next Twitter will not even get off the ground. Instead of a small company with a great idea and a groundswell of users and contributors, those with tiered Internet will be blocked from accessing a budding business Web site, perhaps with an interceptor page offering to give them access for only an additional $5 a month. On the other end, the carriers will have their hands out to a fledgling company for payola to add the company's Web site to their tiers. Naturally, this is in addition to whatever costs the site already incurs for raw access. If you want to discuss stifling of innovation, there you have it.

The fact is, Senator, that if your amendment comes to pass, explicitly prohibiting government involvement in maintaining a neutral Net, they will do exactly that absolutely as quickly as they can. You will be serving them an exquisite meal made from the technological and innovative future of the United States.


Paul Venezia


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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