A response to the Tribune's "Hands off the Internet"

Posted by Mitchell - June 27, 2006 (entry 465)

by Mitchell Szczepanczyk

It's a rare thing for the Chicago Tribune to editorialize about the politics of its own industry: the media. But mere days before a key vote in Congress over the future of media in the United States, on June 26, 2006, the Tribune published an op-ed entitled "Hands off the Internet". And just like the telecom astroturf group of the same name, the Tribune's op-ed was full of trite incorrect statements and faulty logic. Below is the full op-ed, followed by some aptly-timed corrections.

There's a movement in Congress to make telephone and cable companies treat all the traffic on their high-speed networks the same. That is, charge all content providers the same price. This goes by the name "net neutrality." It sounds vaguely appealing in a country that values equality for all.

It's not a matter of "charging all content providers the same price". It's a matter of a small number of internet service providers hoping to prioritize content to their favored advantage.

Meanwhile, by publishing this op-ed you have just given a lot more people a reason to google the phrase "net neutrallity", and thus find initiatives like savetheinternet.com. Way to go.

Don't be fooled. Nobody's talking about knocking Google, Amazon, MoveOn.org or any other content off the Internet. This is about who's going to foot the bill to make sure the high-speed networks thrive and grow. Net neutrality is aimed at companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.

Net neutrality isn't _aimed_ at anything. It's a measure to help ensure non-discrimination of internet content. If anything, it's those evilnasty internet service providers who themselves have _aimed_ designs at what they termed "tiered access" with the effect of turning the internet into their own private cash cow and bleeding the internet of any independent content.

Customers and content providers are already paying for internet access; no one is arguing otherwise. But what they are arguing about is to prevent the digital equivalent of legalized extortion by telecom companies, and effectively killing the internet as we know it.

It would bar them from charging premium prices for faster delivery of TV, movies or phone service over the high-speed broadband networks they are building across the country.

Wow. Can you restate the same tired and incorrect point yet again please? Higher-end users would pay more for more or faster access, obviously. But the point here has to do with control. Who would control access to content, and the right to provide content -- everyday computer users or Big Telecom?

The backers of net neutrality are an odd mix of commercial giants such as Amazon, Google and eBay and advocacy groups such as the Christian Coalition and MoveOn.org. The commercial firms want to make sure their customers get fast access to their information and services, but they don't want to have to pay the phone or cable companies higher fees to make sure of that. The advocacy groups worry that they will be priced out of the fast lane, making it harder for users to access what they have to offer.

Hey, it's a more-or-less accurate description of the state of affairs in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. Someone alert the media!

Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem that hasn't developed. It probably never will develop, because limiting net access for some sites would put the net providers at a competitive disadvantage.

Boy, that whole "accurate description" thing ended fast.

It's not hypothetical. There are already a number of instances of discrimination of internet content. Ask users of Craigslist who saw their access blocked by Cox Communications earlier in June 2006. Ask users of AOL who saw AOL block emails from the DearAOL.com campaign against AOL's controversial paid email. Ask users of Comcast email who were involved with the AfterDowningStreet campaign, and whose emails had been blocked by Comcast.

By the way, competitive advantage occurs in competitive markets, not in monopoly or near-monopoly circumstances like the current state of affairs for more than 98% of phone and cable customers.

Most of the country enjoys some competition among Internet service providers. The Federal Communications Commission reports that 88 percent of the nation's ZIP codes have at least two high-speed Internet service providers, 75 percent have at least three and 60 percent have four or more. The numbers continue to grow. If one of those ISPs made it hard for customers to get to the sites they wanted, customers could change providers.

Small problem: Both cable and phone companies have been notorious for becoming decidedly noncompetitive markets, and the opportunities for collusion between giants in the two industries against consumers and "outsider" media producers are poised to ripen.

Such a law would have the perverse effect of discouraging investment in new broadband networks. Video is going to require a lot of broadband. If Verizon or AT&T can't charge more for TV and movies than for other content, those companies will have little incentive to build expensive broadband networks across the country. Who else is going to spend billions of dollars to make sure Americans have the same kind of high-speed broadband access that many European and Asian countries enjoy?

Another small problem: AT&T and Verizon haven't been twiddling their thumbs on the matter of deploying internet-ready video, or much-higher speeds for that matter. AT&T's planned video service Project Lightspeed is still in the experimental stages, and the proposed speeds of this so-called "Project Lightspeed" are laughable by international standards. Meanwhile, the United States has fallen to about twentieth worldwide in terms of broadband penetration and available speeds, and we continue to fall, precisely through the lousy policies that we've been carrying out at great variance to what's happening elsewhere

BellSouth's chief architect, Henry Kafka, estimates that Internet-based TV would consume more than 100 times the bandwidth that the average residential broadband-network subscriber uses today. Make that high-definition TV and the number shoots even higher. There will not be enough capacity without massive ongoing investment in broadband networks.

Investment doesn't move internet traffic. Internet infrastructure does. And the evidence suggests that Big Telecom has been working on its legislation and litigation prospects to enhance its bottom line rather than, oh, I don't know, improving technical infastructure.

The net neutrality movement seeks to lock in place the market as it exists in 2006. It assumes the big players of today will be tomorrow's big players and the horizon won't change. The 1996 Telecommunications Act made the same assumption about the Baby Bells--when cell phone use was just beginning to accelerate and Internet phone service was just a whisper.

Actually, it's Big Telecom which is seeking to lock in things as they currently stand in 2006, or rather turn the internet back to the internet equivalent of the Pony Express, where users could only visit a small number of company-approved and company-created "websites".

An apt comparison: If lawmakers had forced a uniform price requirement on mail delivery, the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, DHL and UPS would have been barred from charging a premium for faster delivery. Most likely, FedEx and the others would not have been born, and you remember why they call it snail mail. Consumers will benefit if Congress encourages competition. It breeds more choices, lower prices and innovation. Net neutrality stops all that in its tracks.

Without net neutrality, I wouldn't be able to post this op-ed and have it reach a much wider potential audience than if it got published in the Chicago Tribune. No wonder the Tribune is editorializing against it.

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