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Net Diversity Threatened by Neutrality Advocates

By Sonia Arrison TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 5, 2006 5:00 AM PT

There's a policy issue before Congress so pressing that even Hollywood actors like former "Charmed" star Alyssa Milano are blogging about it. It's called "net neutrality," and its purpose is to control what network owners can charge for their services. Such a plan would harm consumers and crush diversity on the Internet.

Net Diversity Threatened by Neutrality Advocates

Milano, who seemed to be mimicking a press release by Democratic Web site Moveon.org, referred to net neutrality as "the Internet's First Amendment." This characterization is flawed, as the concept of net neutrality would mean greater government regulation of the Net, leading to less freedom.

Web Access

Proponents of net neutrality assert that if government doesn't pass laws to control what broadband providers like Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Comcast can charge for using their services, then somehow consumers will be blocked from going to their favorite Web pages. That's a pretty outrageous claim, given that the broadband market is becoming more competitive every day.

It's also an odd argument to make given that network owners have specifically said they wouldn't block Web sites, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would clearly sound an alarm to lawmakers if such an abuse occurred. Indeed, even supporters of net neutrality have noted these facts.

In writing for Slate.com, Tim Wu noted that "the cable firms and the Bells have (to their credit, but under pressure) sworn off blocking Web sites. Instead, they propose to carve off bandwidth for their own services -- namely, television -- and, more controversially, to charge selected companies a toll for 'priority' service." Wu's comments help isolate the goals of Net such neutrality supporters as Internet giants Google and Yahoo.

More Service, More Money

It appears that those companies don't want to pay more for using more services, and they are trying to scare lawmakers into writing each network's business plans into stone. That would be a disaster and harm future innovation -- a situation that consumers have unfortunately seen before in the communications marketplace.

When regulators tried to promote competition in the telecommunications market by forcing telephone companies to share their networks at government-controlled prices, investment in the networks shrunk, and innovation slowed. It was only in the non-regulated area of the communications market that revolutionary new technologies were created.

For instance, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) are two new technological feats that make communications services cheaper and more convenient -- but the environment that led to their creation is at risk if manipulative e-commerce companies get their way.

Net neutrality proponents are ultimately pushing for a uniform system of old-style regulation on a currently vibrant medium. That is, by trying to make broadband network providers treat everyone in the same manner, neutrality proponents call for a regime that Precursor analyst Scott Cleland labels "sameness."

"Applying monopoly regulations to a competitive market would have the nonsensical outcome of outlawing the development of choices for consumers through competitive innovation and differentiation of networks," Cleland wrote in a recent report.

The Corporate Bottom Line

He's right -- so, if neutrality supporters were really concerned about freedom, they wouldn't promote government-enforced conformity. Instead, individuals such as Vint Cerf, father of the Internet and now on Google's payroll, and Vonage co-founder Jeff Pulver push for policies that will help their corporate bottom lines. The House of Representatives Commerce committee recently rejected such pleas, keeping the Net safe from red tape for the time being.

The debate over net neutrality will continue for the foreseeable future as the facts continually get distorted and various star figures show up spouting ideas that don't make sense. In a country that values free speech, this is par for the course, but that doesn't mean consumers and lawmakers should allow themselves to be charmed.

"Net neutrality" is code for government intrusion in the marketplace -- interference that would harm freedom and diversity on the Net.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


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