The original draft of the Senate Commerce Committee’s new telecommunications legislation contained no provisions for network neutrality, instead directing the FCC to produce a yearly report on the topic. Needless to say, yearly FCC reports were not what the proponents of network neutrality had hoped for; they wanted legislative action, and it looked like they would be disappointed.
In the month since, the Senate has discovered an interest in the topic, though, and Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) now believes that more can and should be done to ensure that consumers are able to access any web sites and services on the Internet without degradation.
“I think that’s the one issue where we still have some work to do,” Lisa Sutherland, chief of staff to Stevens, told reporters. “We’re going to work as hard as we can this week on Net neutrality.”
His initial proposal to simply study the issue further did not please several members of the committee, and Stevens now looks ready to consider some compromise plans that could be presented to the full Senate in as little as the week.
The debate over network neutrality has exploded beyond the boundaries of traditional geekdom in the last few months. It has played out in the halls of Congress and on the editorial pages of major American newspapers, the high level of interest signaling just how important Internet connections have become to people’s lives. While both sides have important points to make about the inherent dangers of monopolies, the unintended consequences of government regulation, etc., the level of the debate isn’t raised when people get their facts wrong.
Techdirt dissects some of the claims being made by DC newspapers this week and points out the holes in their editorial writing about the issue. Take the Washington Times, for example, the right-wing paper owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon (founder of the Moonies), which had this to say in a recent editorial on network neutrality:
“Essentially, the [failed House] amendment would have forced Internet service providers (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc.) to offer the same speed to Internet companies regardless of content. So, for example, Comcast would have to charge Microsoft the same price to send broadband-consuming video content as the individual blogger who uses far less band space. The basis for this is the idea that the Internet should remain ‘free’ to all.
But nothing in life is free.”
The obvious confusion that lies at the heart of this statement concerns the way that the Internet is funded. The passage assumes that when ISPs like Comcast pass Microsoft traffic along to consumers without receiving any money, they’re being ripped off, exactly as if a consumer found some way to siphon a Comcast broadband connection without paying for it. This simply isn’t true, though. Microsoft has already paid their own ISP for bandwidth (it’s certainly not “free,” and it’s certainly not the same rate that a blogger pays for a low-bandwidth web site), and the reason that they don’t need to pay Comcast a second fee is that Comcast’s own network is funded by their own customers. People aren’t dropping US$40 a month for an Internet fast lane that leads only to Sticksville, MO, they’re paying for their connection because it allows them to connect to companies like Microsoft. No one just wants to access the “Internet cloud”; they want to access specific Internet sites. Without interesting Web properties to visit, no one would pay US$500 a year for the privilege of using a fat Internet pipe.
Part of the problem here is that it’s not always clear what the ISPs have in mind for the Internet. People like AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre can bellyache about people using “my pipes for free” and talk about extracting money from Google and others, then turn around and claim that he has no plans to “do anything to affect the Internet.” What exactly do firms like AT&T have in mind? Depending on what happens in the next several weeks, we’ll know soon enough.