If the Internet is the information superhighway, imagine a special lane for certain kinds of cars and trucks, or a series of toll roads installed over what was once just a freeway. That picture is now, slowly but surely, becoming a reality.
On April 11, less than two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down on party lines FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s public stand in favor of net neutrality. Short for network neutrality, this is the principle which says Internet users are entitled to a level playing field online and that content providers cannot create their own lanes on the superhighway. In New York City, the dominant carrier is Time Warner, and Manhattanites get their cable service from them exclusively. Slackening the rules may further consolidate Internet control by the carriers, according to digital rights advocates.
Take, for instance, the streaming video service Netflix. Net neutrality rules would dictate that the big telecoms cannot try to destroy it by introducing their own video-on-demand services and convince customers that the extra $10 per month for Netflix does not make sense when their Internet service comes with streaming video as a standard feature.
Tommy “Mack” McEldowney, formerly with the Defense Information School and a graduate of SUNY-Albany, is a business consultant who draws a clear line in the sand. “There’s two issues here,” he said in a telephone interview from California. “One is what is said on the Net, written or downloaded for that matter, video, audio, any of it. And the other thing is the medium itself.”
“Think of it like a pipe, and all the communication that goes through the pipe,” he added. “Net neutrality says that whoever owns the pipe can’t decide that they wanna have a new pipe inside of it, for which they can charge money.”
“More money,” he added. “You’re already paying for the pipe to deliver the Net to your home, to the faucet of your computer—if you continue with that metaphor.” He said that the hazard there is “that could be discriminatory toward people who can’t afford the extra money for content.”
“By the way,” McEldowney said, “new ISPs come along all the time, which is why the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed.” Yet the focus now is on the broadband providers, for the reason that broadband was not covered in that legislation. The FCC rules “were drafted over a year ago, and at the time the FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, said that the FCC had no intention at all of regulating the Internet” but “made the distinction that regulation of ISPs is another issue entirely.”
Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group that works toward digital rights, said the issue of fair play is paramount. “Every content provider, every consumer, has the right to access the content provider of his or her choice based on what the consumer wants to do and not through a decision made by the network provider,” he said over the phone from his D.C. office.
Harriet Novet, Regional Vice President of Public Affairs at Time Warner Cable, based on the 7th floor of 120 E 23rd Street, could not be reached for comment.
“What they’re trying to do is shape the rules,” Brodsky said, referring to carriers like Time Warner. “They already tried to do it through the FCC, trying to do it through Congress, do it in the courts, anyway they can, to take away the openness that until five years ago had been guaranteed through law which was lifted during the Bush administration.
“So what they’re trying to do is make sure it doesn’t come back, so they can pretty much do what they want.” And what they want to do, he says, is “carve out their own little managed service from the regular Internet and offer it to the companies which can afford to pay it, leaving other companies at a disadvantage.”
When asked about the argument made by those opposed to net neutrality, namely that putting stringent federal rules in place may hinder growth and development, Brodsky cited an old satirical joke.
“That’s really interesting coming from the carriers. I mean, what that brings to mind to me is this old—I think it was the first edition, or second edition, of National Lampoon’s magazine, where they had a picture on the cover and it said ‘Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog.’”
The issue of network neutrality “has morphed in its politics over the last couple of years,” Brodsky said. Congress first took notice in 2006, when representatives “who were shall we say friendly to the phone companies and took in their largesse to a great degree.” He continued on by saying that such a “toll road” already exists. “This is sort of a commuter lane—the ‘HOV lane’ is what we call it down here,” he said. As for the virtual cars on the information highway, the traffic signs in the distance may be beginning to read, slow: congestion ahead.