[iDC] Net Neutrality

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Wed Jun 21 23:07:51 EDT 2006

Danny, thanks for contributing your text on net neutrality. I liked your
attempt to go beyond the limitations of the current public debate but I
was unsure about some of your premises. Before responding to it I'll put
my views clearly on the table. 

In February I started to closely follow the presentations before the US
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation on the topic of
net neutrality (live on C-span). Google¹s Vint Cerf and a few
telecommunication spokespeople presented the issues. In a different
session the academic community was given the word, represented by the
likes of Lawrence Lessig and Gregory Sidak. 

You don't have to be a lefty or a tech buff to support net neutrality. 

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, clearly spoke out
against a multi-tiered Internet. Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney
wrote a piece for the Washington Post to make the case once more before
Congress decided on it. They phrased the issue succinctly:

"Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be
treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of
the Internet's wires cannot discriminate. This is the simple but
brilliant "end-to-end" design of the Internet that has made it such a
powerful force for economic and social good: All of the intelligence and
control is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect

Despite massive support for net neutrality Congress decided against it.
However, the widespread support for net neutrality included the
initiative Savetheinternet.com, which is a grass-roots coalition of more
than 700 groups, 5000 bloggers and 750000 individual Americans. On June
8 the U.S. House of Representatives rejected legislation that would
protect net neutrality once and for all. The vote was sharply divided
along party lines with Democrats supporting net neutrality.

ZDNet: "Its Republican backers, along with broadband providers such as
Verizon and AT&T, say that the existing laws provide sufficient net
neutrality protections for consumers, and that more extensive rules
would discourage investment in wiring American homes with higher-speed

If this was not clear enough, and in order to understand the politics of
the decision just look at the partial list of supporters and opponents,
provided by Cybertelecom.org:

In support of net neutrality legislation: 

Tim Berners Lee, Rep. Markey, Sen. Clinton, Prof. Larry Lessig, Save the
Internet, Media Access Project, Intel, Amazon, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft,
Pulver, San Jose Mercury News, Center Digital Democracy, Coalition of
Broadband Users and Innovators

Against it: 

Verizon, AT&T (SBC), Comcast, Qwest, Cisco

This list clearly marks two camps: the telecoms on one side and pretty
much everyone else on the other. I wonder if the flat-out rejection of
net neutrality is an underhanded governmental payback to the telecoms
for letting them listen in on Americans. Also look at the politics that
telecom corporations currently stand for: their alignment with the
current administration. I am shocked about the decision against net
neutrality that blocks innovation in favor of profit for the big
telecommunication corporations. This decision shows this
administration's clear support of big business but at the same time it
positions itself against a market-oriented version of Republican
conservatism. A law protecting net neutrality would ensure competition,
as startups would have a chance to attract people because they could not
afford the bandwidth that it takes to deliver swift participatory

This decision by Congress does not mean that the Verizon's and AT&T's of
this world will suddenly introduce an Internet structure that sells
higher bandwidth to those who can afford it, thus killing off all
startups who could not afford such privileged treatment. But it does
leave the Internet vulnerable to such development, which puts at risk
everything we love about the Internet as we know it.

Danny writes: "In these examples, 'non-neutral policies' that prioritise
some types of traffic over others are an essential part of giving the
customer what they want." Characterizing net publics as consumers is one
of the problems in this argumentation. 

I agree with Danny that it is vitally important to clarify what the most
crucial public benefits of network access are and that those need our
collective support. 

When I first felt in love with the Internet it was because of:

X its participatory quality: the culture of participation and sharing in
the networked public sphere 
X self-organized social networks
X citizen journalism
X peer-to-peer file sharing
X open access initiatives
X access to knowledge (A2K)

All of these attributes are likely to be neutered by a multi-tiered

Danny: "The question of what viable economic models will look like under
next-generation networks is central to the Net Neutrality debate. On one
hand, it seems unrealistic to expect that the vertically integrated
content & distribution model has no place on the Internet - to exclude
it by legal means will probably delay the introduction of new, efficient
distribution models that users want (see, for example, the role of
iTunes in kick-starting the digital music downloads business)."

My main question for you is: Whom does your argumentation serve? Is
Mac's financial success or downfall with iTunes impact civic uses of
technology? Which side of the net does a multi-tiered net that
privileges the few super corporations who can afford to pay for extra
bandwidth strengthen? A multi-tiered net would have ample political
repercussions: guess what political alliances the sections of the net
would have that run on the fast track.  

Danny: "A large part of the problem is that people in the US (in
particular) assumed that the Internet was public because the protocol
for transferring information is public. But the actual physical networks
are owned primarily by private entities who interconnect via market
transactions and they have many incentives to recoup their
investment/seek profit by tying their access offering to what people
actually want, i.e. content."

It's by no means new news even in the new world that the hardware that
enables the Internet is privately owned while its protocols are open.     

Danny: "In a rapidly changing network environment, these will need to be
more sophisticated than simply arguing for a status quo, or worse,  
implementing poor legislation that is unresponsive to the business
models that will shape the Internet's future."

To oppose net neutrality is unresponsive to emerging business models
that rely on bandwidth for their life. In addition, to think that the
future of the Internet is in the hands of business alone is already
giving up on what I love most about the Internet: its autonomous uses. 


Videos introducing the issues





Vince Cerf

Lawrence Lessig

Gregory Sidak

Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney

Tim Berners Lee 

House rejects net neutrality

Interceptions of private communication in the US

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