The European Parliament voted last week to continue to encourage net neutrality as a means to foster innovation and to encourage the dissemination of information. The resolution states, in part, its ambitions “to ensure that internet service providers do not block, discriminate against, impair or degrade the ability of any person to use a service to access, use, send, post, receive or offer any content, application or service of their choice, irrespective of source or target.” Political support for the measure was bolstered by the, funded by such content providers as the BBC, Yahoo!, and Skype.
In the US, on the other hand, the Senate recently blocked a Republican-sponsored bill that would block the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from blocking service providers who block, or at least slow down, internet traffic. Why is the Senate’s position so much more convoluted than the one presented by the EU?
The days of free internet over the phone line is long dead (thankfully), but those free days reinforced an ethos among users and customers that steered builders of the net in the first place: free movement of data at an equal rate throughout the network (a useful summation of the idea of net neutrality and its political implications can be read here). The concern now is that demand on the infrastructure are so high that providers argue they should be allowed to charge extra for more content and/or prioritize certain patrons’ sites over others’.
The problem in the US is that those who stand to profit from controlling data access have formulated a double-negative to mask their economic interests. Republican Jim DeMint, in an early op-ed piece arguing for less government regulation, presents this case:
Proponents of this regulatory bonanza say that without government interference, networks will block basic Internet services and Web sites to consumers. Yet this has not happened without federal regulation. Unlike the current video franchising problem, Net neutrality remains only a theoretical threat. Even a content producer such as Amazon.com, which is advocating for these new regulations, testified to Congress that a problem does not currently exist.
It would be commercial suicide for any network provider to limit the ability of their customers to access any site or receive any service: Their customers would simply go elsewhere!
By ‘elsewhere’, he must mean the other of the two cable/internet providers (ISPs) most of us get to chose from in most of our communities. That the other one will be controlling data as well seems not to have crossed his mind. Nor the fact that those two providers tend to bundle services into 2-year contracts that are expensive to break.
But the more conspiratorial passage – the kind of thinking that makes the debate so unwieldy in the US as opposed to Europe – is the one that refers to the online behemoth Amazon.com: “Even a content producer such as Amazon.com, which is advocating for these new regulations, testified to Congress that a problem does not currently exist.” The ‘new regulations’ are, in fact, only a statement to guarantee the old/original concept of the open internet. In other words, the ‘new regulations’ are tantamount to ‘keep things as they are’.
That the BBC and Yahoo back net neutrality in Europe is also worth noting. If ISPs are free to establish tiers of service for different payments from content providers, then surely the BBC and Yahoo could afford higher tariffs to get their stuff to our devices quickly (and perhaps slow competitors’ trips to our browsers and smartphones). They would stand to gain from ISP manipulation of networks. Nevertheless, they support the open internet and want EU governments to support it.
What net-neutrality nerds are asking for is not that the government regulate the internet. They are asking for the internet not to be regulated by corporate ISPs who are striving to remake the web in their own image and with their own tollbooths/speed bumps/traffic controls (pick your metaphor). The problem is that the debate in the US is (willfully?) confused with a debate to ‘roll back’ government intervention. But no government intervention exists over the internet to roll back. Instead, we should envision the issue as an effort to keep away such intervention, corporate or otherwise.