Clearing the air on Net Neutrality

There has been a lot of smoke blown recently about “net neutrality,” which has not done much to clear the air on this critical issue. Perhaps the biggest problem is defining the term itself.

Net neutrality is neither a political system nor a federal plot. It is, simply put, the idea that network carriers have an obligation to carry all traffic, without discriminating against any individual web site, search engine, social network or video-sharing site. It is, as Loris Taylor of Native Public Media called it, “essentially the First Amendment of the Internet.”

The opposite of net neutrality, the goal the large carriers seek, is the “walled garden.” Imagine you are using Comcast cable Internet, for example. You are paying for your data connection; the web sites you visit have also paid for their data connection. How would you feel if Comcast decided to slow YouTube’s traffic to a crawl, because some other video site had paid it a fee to favor their service? How about if Comcast decided NetFlix traffic should be slowed down because they want to promote their own service? You might not be too happy that your provider, already paid twice, wants to be paid a third time.

Guess what. This scenario is already real. Read the Associated Press article at

Do I pick on Comcast unfairly? No, because they’ve been under either complaint or censure since 2007 for throttling specific applications, including BitTorrent and Lotus Notes, despite advertising “unlimited Internet.” And it’s not just BitTorrent and not just Comcast; Google “Madison River Vonage” and take your pick of articles about the efforts of Madison River (a carrier) to block Vonage VoIP telephone service, and the deep fines they incurred.

In the Albuquerque Journal, Rick Carnes (who is President of the Songwriters Guild of American, and thus has a financial interest on one side of this issue) argues that net neutrality is “an unprecedented federal expansion over the web.”

Recall that the Internet was originally developed by the Department of Defense at the public’s expense. It operates over a federally- and state-subsidized carrier network. That network itself is a provisional monopoly governed for the good of all citizens, not of individual corporations. It is already a federally regulated system.

You, the public, have already paid for this network through tax incentives and subsidies, or by paying $1000 per pole to run power and telephone to your rural home. The telecom carriers are simply providing a service. Now they want to change dramatically the terms of that service, to degrade the service you receive, and to improve their profits at your expense.

Like many people making his argument, Carnes says that the carriers don’t want net neutrality because it will interfere with “heal[ing] the Digital Divide,” since the carriers need more money to deploy broadband to remote areas. But that’s what Public Regulation Commissions are for: to evaluate utilities’ need for funding or rate increases for infrastructure. We can’t afford to be uncertain of this: net neutrality is a completely separate issue.

Carnes also suggests that keeping carriers from getting their way is “raising serious concerns about freedom of speech on the Internet since the censorship-friendly FCC would be doing the regulation.” Let’s be clear that the argument is about carriers charging websites more to speed up their traffic, nothing more. If there is any censorship to be feared, it’s the censorship the carriers will impose if we don’t lock in net neutrality now.

Randy Sanchez of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce argues that net neutrality somehow threatens deployment of high-speed Internet in rural areas, particularly for Hispanics. His argument that net neutrality is about infrastructure is off the point. To keep us on the point: net neutrality is about preventing carriers from throttling Internet traffic from sources that don’t pay extra for special access. Far from threatening rural people, net neutrality would ensure their fair access to any site or service.

Also, the $30,000-50,000 per-mile figure Sanchez cites when he discusses broadband deployment is for buried lines. Every rural dweller can tell you all about the existing network of utility poles, and the rarity of underground service, throughout the Southwest. Broadband deployment will be much cheaper than Sanchez suggests.

There is no federal takeover; the federal government (specifically the FCC) is having its hand forced by the attempts of large Internet providers to pervert a system already paid for by the public (twice or three times, depending on how you count) so they can make more money from us. There’s no doubt that if we don’t lock in net neutrality now, individual providers will be free to discriminate against any traffic they want, and you won’t be able to do a thing about it.

It’s that simple. Don’t let anyone try to confuse you with fear, uncertainty and doubt; there is nothing complex about this issue. It’s about making telecom/internet carriers stick to the agreement they’ve been bound to since the beginning of the Internet: not to discriminate against anyone’s traffic, and particularly not to make your favorite services pay them – yet again.