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(DV) Hafer: Why We Can't Be Neutral on Net Neutrality







Why We Can't Be Neutral On Net Neutrality
by Jessi Hafer
July 14, 2006

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The Communications Act of 1934 was most recently amended in 1996, when President Clinton signed a bill that allowed for media to become even more concentrated and even more expensive for consumers. Congress is now considering new amendments to deal with media technologies branching off from their traditional purposes into different functions. Some of the provisions Congress is considering could be beneficial. However, by not guaranteeing network neutrality (or net neutrality), the bills raise concerns.  

Senate Bill S.2686, sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens (R, AK), is scheduled for consideration and markup by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on June 20, 2006. [1] California Senator Barbara Boxer has called for changes to the bill, saying, "If we don't do this Net Neutrality, we are going to have a lot of people shut out of that highway." [2]  
The House Bill, HR 5252, authored by Representative Joe Barton (R, TX), is also referred to as the COPE Bill, or The Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Bill. The co-sponsor is Representative Bobby Rush (D, IL), whose non-profit community center has received a million dollars in donations from AT&T/SBC. [3] The House passed this bill, 321 yeas to 101 nays. Of California Representatives, 23 voted in support of this bill and 27 against it; all four of the Representatives from the Fresno area voted in support of the bill. On June 12, 2006, the House-approved bill was referred to the Senate committee, who referred the bill to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. COPE would eliminate net neutrality, allowing internet providers to charge for preferential content delivery and thus creating a multi-tiered internet.  
Today, if people receiving the internet in their homes pay more, they can have faster service (if it's available to their area). However, under COPE, those creating content would pay for being carried on faster network. A site's placement on a fast or slow lane would not be based on the size of web site, but on whether the site paid extra for preferential treatment, and whether that site was granted preferential treatment by the service provider.  
With net neutrality, the network simply moves data without choosing which data to privilege with higher quality service, so blogs are just as accessible as corporate web sites. In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, law professors Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig point out that a neutral network is predictable in that it treats all applications alike: "The value of network neutrality can be seen clearly in another context: the nation's electric system. Because it remains neutral, the electricity network has served as an important platform for innovation. The electronics industry designs new and better electronics, safe in the assumption that American electricity will be provided without preference for certain brands or products… It provides designers and consumers alike with a baseline on which they can rely." [4]  
However, according to Net Neutrality opponent Christopher Yoo, "The key question is not whether network neutrality provides substantial benefits… the key regulatory question … [is] whether imposing network neutrality would forestall the realization of important economic benefits." [5] In their industry white paper, the communications company Alcatel refers to three major stakeholders in their supply chain: content providers (the examples they list are movie studios, music labels, content aggregators, broadcasters, and programmers), content retailers (the networks), and content consumers. Alcatel notes the strengths of a tiered internet in that it "gives rise to greater economies of scale, strong brand recognition, and innovative technology development." [6]  
The potential for problems is seen by internet service providers already showing their willingness to make their own interests their highest priority [7]:


* In 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked their DSL customers from using any rival Web-based phone service.  

* In 2005, Canada's telephone giant Telus blocked customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a labor dispute. 

* Shaw, a big Canadian [8] cable TV company, is charging an extra $10 a month to subscribers in order to "enhance" competing Internet telephone services  

* In April, Time Warner's AOL blocked all emails that mentioned www.dearaol.com -- an advocacy campaign opposing the company's pay-to-send e-mail scheme.


It is not surprising for a business to place high priority on their own interests and on paying dividends to their stakeholders. However, media is not just business: they are our supposed "4th Estate," a source of all kinds of information, the watchdog of the government, and so on. The strains between media as business and media as part of democracy is not new, but it should not be overlooked now, either. Some of the business arguments may be compelling, but they simplify the issue to technology proliferation, consumers, and so on.  
Even setting aside the digital divide (although polls suggest that 75% of Americans have access to the internet [9], this leaves one in four Americans without the internet, and these polls are not without flaws), a brief glance at democratic theory shows that the internet's role in democracy reaches far beyond helping people become informed voters or giving people information about what their government is doing. The internet provides much more than other media in that it gives people opportunities to share their voices and allows for the development of virtual communities.  
Tocqueville noted that, in large democracy especially, if any common action is ever to occur, people need a means of talking and acting together daily without actually being in the presence of each other, and newspapers (the medium of Tocqueville's era) can help create virtual associations. [10] The internet not only provides a common ground of information (as newspapers do), but also allows users to interact with one another and form stronger associations.  
Democratic theorist Hannah Arendt [11] held that being seen and heard by others is an important element of democracy, politics, and public life. More so than other media, the internet provides opportunities for people to share their voices and ideas.  
In simplifying internet users to content consumers, those with money to gain through the loss of net neutrality don't have to think about the loss of voices or communities that might also result. With net neutrality, it is, as it often is, time to decide if the commodities that are easily translated into money are more valuable to our society than the things that are more difficult to quantify , but perhaps even more valuable.  
There are many ways to find out more about this issue. The bills in Congress can be easily tracked by bill number. You can read more about this at the grassroots sites listed in this article. Be aware, though, that phone and cable companies have established several fake grassroots (or "Astroturf") groups, also listed in this article. [12]  
*An aside: I conducted a lot of background reading for this article on the internet. I intend to continue following this issue on the internet. I've signed online petitions and emailed Congressmen. This article will eventually be posted on the Undercurrent's web site, and perhaps we will discuss it on the Undercurrent's discussion forum. I sincerely hope the internet continues to allow for all of these activities to happen.  
Grassroots sites
Alliance for Community Media 
Benton Foundation 
OCTV Center for Media & Democracy 
Center for Digital Democracy 
Common Cause 
Consumers Union 
Consumer Federation of America 
Center for Creative Voices in Media 
Grassroots Cable 
Manhattan Neighborhood Network 
Media Access Project 
Media Alliance 
Public Knowledge 
Reclaim the Media 
Save Access.org 
"Astroturf"/Industry sites 
American Legislative Exchange Council 
Broadband Everywhere 
Consumers for Cable Choice 
Frontiers of Freedom 
The Future … Faster 
Hands Off the Internet 
Internet Innovation Alliance 
New Millennium Research Council 
Progress and Freedom Foundation 
Jessi Hafer can be reached at: jessi@fresnoundercurrent.net.

[1] http://thomas.loc.gov carries the basic information on every bill in Congress

[2] www.freepress.net/news/15590

[3] www.saveaccess.com

[4] Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig, August 22, 2003, letter to Marlene H. Dorch, Secretary, Federal Communications Commission

[5] Yoo, Christopher S (February 6, 2006), "Promoting Broadband Through Network Diversity."

[6] Alcatel (2004), "Strategic White Paper: A Guided Approach to Broadband Entertainment Services."

[7] This is mentioned on the internet worded identically on several sites without mention of the original compiler of the info… darn internet. I came across this first at: www.savetheinternet.com/=threat

[8] Although it may be tempting to dismiss the examples from Canada, in considering the global nature of the internet and the multi-national nature of media companies and corporations, we should still bare these instances in mind.

[9] Nielsen/Netratings study in 2004. Sited in several online news sites, including money.cnn.com, although the original study was not available.

[10] (Tocqueville, 1969, 518)

[11] (1958, 57)

[12] www.freepress.net/telecom/=players