Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A lot of talk on ‘net neutrality’ (NN). Before I take a position either which way, it may be useful to first take some time and figure out what it is, how attractive the alternatives are. And also, on balance, whether what it all amounts to in the end run is a good thing.

Owing much of the discussion to the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) and Free Press (respectively Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney), ought the “network owners … become content gatekeepers”? Clearly, no, if by that we mean that the enablers for the Web intend to control it. Conversely, yes, if we mean that these enablers intend to improve and broaden access, etc. (To borrow a phrase out of a certain college paper’s office, my “indecision is final”.)

But am I being sucked into alarmism? I hope not, if I keep a cool, level head about things; or, I hope so, if that gets me to the truth. But the connection to the business of blogging seems somewhat clear enough, specifically this ‘netroots’ movement as inspired by DailyKos and the like, which are attempting — quite successfully, by fits and starts — to be on par with ‘mainstream’ media in terms of influencing public policy, the party system, etc.

My concern regards one of access and resource, which not even the largest blogging entities possess. As the so-called blogosphere has grown, perhaps matured, into a patently self-styled forum for ideologues and partisans, I have only become more concerned. I’ve been blogging for over three years, but I have yet to take full scope of what it amounts to, that is what I’ve stumbled into.

The intention was never partisan hackery; the aim is, and was, to keep a running tally, initially out of boredom and, later, out of misdirected rage or amusement, of whatever felt noteworthy at the time. I cannot claim that my vision here was lost, for there was none to begin with.

[Some final comments for now on the Netroots concept and how it looks to be panning out, this Digital New Left (DNL) — whose target is not simply the Republican establishment but, more significantly, the Democratic. But the DNL is not radically democratic enough: Either end the two-party system entirely, or try to work around it. As long as politics (in effect) means money, to generalize, people — most people, not the psychotically pressure-cooked politicos à la the Washington set — won’t be drawn to it.]

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, “All the sides [in the NN debate] say they are fighting on behalf of consumers, innovation and free speech” (19 June 2006). I asked the author of the story, Miriam Hill, about why — in the words of the much under-rated Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) — this issue has involved such “‘sharply contrasting’ views”.

Ms. Hill wrote back to me, reflecting that she, as well, felt the “need to understand it better. … The ‘sharply contrasting’ views stem from broadband providers' desire to be able to charge business customers whatever they want.” Adding: “Those customers (Google, eBay, etc.) want everyone to have to pay the same freight.”

Steve Forbes (“Ominous Neutrality”, Wall Street Journal, 12 June) writes that malevolent “well-financed lobbyists … want Congress to pass innovation-stifling restrictions” on the telecoms’ embryonic broadbands, such as “premature, unnecessary regulations” such as, well, whatever they are, he won’t specify. Having them charge higher fees for effectively monopolized “super-high-speed services that gobble extra bandwidth on the network,” somehow, “sounds like the free market at work”. [My hypocrisy cannot be overstated; I am a beneficiary of the cable monopoly Comcast and its broadband service.]

A Washington Post editorial (“The Internet’s Future”, 11 June 2006, sec. A, p. 20) elaborated on the issue, spelling out some of the misconceptions surrounding it. NN-supporters’ arguments are “absurd” because “the market for Internet connections … is competitive” versus that for cable television; and, “Thanks to technology, the Internet will always be a relatively democratic medium with low barriers to entry.” So, Congress ought not “burden the Internet with pre-emptive regulation” that may only prove “speculative.” This is essentially Mr. Forbes’ argument, with the calls against thwarting “innovators” and the like. Whether it is all speculation, and that we really have no idea what will happen here, is beyond discussion.

Editors at the Washington Times (“Free-market telecom”, 12 June) spouted that NN legislation would be “a solution to a non-existent problem” and completely abhorrent to the free-market-information-super-highway, originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — and is currently under no one’s control, though its ‘gatekeepers’ represent the major telecom interests, i.e. Verizon, Comcast, etc.

This picture may change relatively soon, either for good or bad. The Times, in light of this, sees — dare I say it — a powerfully anti-capitalist subsidy for what may amount to Internet control as “free-market common sense”.

Not much has been so far conclusively been done in the Senate of late, where efforts “to impose ‘net neutrality’ provisions” are yet to be compromised with the G.O.P. drive to block any perceived “interfer[ence] with commercial deals among phone and cable companies and the content providers” (Arshad Mohammed, Washington Post, 13 June, sec. D, p. 4).

I usually do not write up something like this. But it is important, for (as has been thus far hinted) the very future of the Internet as we now know it might be at stake. Or may not. Judging by the mess of bills up for committee debate and revision, it seems that there is quite a lot of confusion over the issue. But to get to the heart of the matter, it is necessary to strip away the rhetorical gimmicks and “findings”.

On May 1, Senators Ted Stevens (R-AR) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) put forward a bill, entitled the ‘Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act’ (S. 2686), now in committee. The next day, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA-7) et al introduced their ‘Network Neutrality Act’ (H.R. 5273) and, to top it off, on May 19 Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-NH) and others proposed an ‘Internet Freedom Preservation Act’ (S. 2917).

All of the bills under the microscope address bringing the 1934 Communications Act into the new century. The relevant questions, I think, are how we are intending to do this and what are we looking at.

Stevens’ bill is the longest and most regulatory/confusing of the three. The relevant part of it — and there are many detours, including provisions regarding the War on Terror, etc. — is §901: if, one year from now, “the developments in Internet traffic processing, routing, peering, transport, and interconnection” are found by both the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Cmte. and the House Cmte. on Energy and Commerce to have any “significant problems” in that and some other respects, then those committees will in their power “ensure that consumers can access lawful content and run Internet applications and services over the public Internet subject to the bandwidth purchased and the needs of law enforcement agencies” (pp. 131, 132).

Markey and Snowe, respectively, would charge the telecoms to have enforced certain “safeguards” so as to “not block, impair, degrade, discriminate against, or interfere with the ability of any person to utilize their broadband service” (pp. 5, 6) and, so, make sure the Internet remains free; and makes sure that it would not interfere with “certain management and business-related practices” that, for instance, protect consumers and data (pp. 3, 4). Sure, both of these assume that the motives of the telecoms are indeed to discriminate on the basis of bandwidth, accessibility, etc.; even so, it may be a good step in what is hopefully the right direction.

Mssrs. Lessig and McChesney, respectively of CIS and Free Press, point at “a real grass-roots coalition of more than 700 groups, 5,000 bloggers and 750,000 individual Americans” opposing the select group of telecommunications interests who disingenuously wave banners that shout COMPETITION and CHOICE.

May the righteous win.

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