Adam Ash

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Congress and the carriers fuck with Net Neutrality at their peril

An Open Message to Internet Carriers: Be Careful What You Ask For -- by Joe Firmage

Most of us who’ve been tracking the Net Neutrality debate share a growing concern that Congress is going to succumb to the communications carriers' leather-shoed lobbyists and cut the democratic heart out of the Internet. If legislation under consideration now passes in current form, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and other members of the carrier cartel will have no limitations on using pricing and filters to control the content sources you see on the Web. The future of the Internet is at stake, and we must do everything we can to raise the temperature on this issue.

It’s such a patently foolish and arrogant move by the carriers. It would be like Zenith charging CBS to broadcast news through its television sets all the way back in the 1950s, discriminating against local channels, claiming “we need additional revenue to invent and distribute color TV.” Forget that consumers back then paid for their televisions, that consumers today pay for their Internet connections, and that online publishers already pay for the bandwidth they use. The carriers are having no problem financing their infrastructures today. These companies are healthy and profitable, and if they need more money for next-generation connectivity, they can always raise the prices consumers pay for their connections. Let’s be clear: these companies are not fighting Net Neutrality because they can’t raise capital to grow new infrastructure; rather, they want to selectively govern access to their pipes, grow their profits and thus stock prices.

Leading figures in technology, economics, and politics – from the inventors of Internet technologies like Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, to liberal economist Robert Reich and conservative Senator Olympia Snowe – have come out strongly in favor of different legislation that will ensure Net Neutrality. But what surprises me is the fervor driving the carriers to fight against the people’s interest, for there are many business reasons why they should reverse course now. Let me describe a few ways that their world might change if Net Neutrality falls.

First, an increasingly Internet-savvy population will not tolerate discrimination of their ability to access or publish content – and a rapidly rising fraction of customers of the carriers are now becoming very savvy content publishers, the kind of small publishers most likely to get the short end of the stick in a world where they must pay for a high-quality Net. Imagine that grass-roots communities organize mass banner campaigns on their Web sites inviting users to switch away from service providers who do not guarantee Net Neutrality.

Second, forget the interests of the “small publisher” that pays these companies’ bills. Imagine that major publishers like Google, Yahoo, NBC and Time Warner start doing the same: pushing their billions of daily visitors toward ethical providers. When billions of dollars and ethics are both at stake, don’t think for a minute that sharp, aggressive Internet CEOs like Eric Schmidt of Google or Jeff Bezos of Amazon would think twice about launching such a campaign.

Third, carriers, consider the precedent that such freedom of extortion would establish downstream from your pipes. Why wouldn’t Microsoft – never too shy of leveraging its monopoly – start to discriminate among upstream content, and service, providers based upon who pays the highest “pixel-second tax” (price per pixel of screen space per second)? Impossible? Hardly. The desktop operating system and your favorite Web portal are rapidly merging, and the future of advertising in the converging result looks increasingly like a pixel-second tax. The abandonment of Net Neutrality would give a lot more political room for those who control billions of screens to control what people see and hear based upon how much sources – and pipes – pay. That would be bad not just for publishers, but for carriers too. And the same excuse would be used by those who practice this downstream extortion: “we need the money to invest in the next-generation of [insert promised product or service here].” No, it’s not necessary. It’s just greed.

Fourth, if the carriers succeed in gutting Net Neutrality, they will also succeed in radically energizing the rise of grass-roots and municipal government-funded regional wireless networks, the inevitable trajectory for which is integration, for there would be a whole new set of motives to do so. That fire is already burning underneath the industry. Do you really want to pour on the fuel?

Message to the carriers and the politicians foolish enough to buy their lobbyists’ spin: be careful what you ask for, since you may get it.

(Joe Firmage is CEO of ManyOne Networks)


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