Net Neutrality and Open Access

I recently made mention of the issue of net neutrality, which has sparked a "Save the Internet" campaign and attracted the attention of The M Zone, among other webloggers.  As Burnt Orange Nation points out, though, this issue has nuances, which is why I am grateful to Kanu for pointing me towards a useful article on the subject.  The information that follows is drawn from Farhad Manjoo's Salon article, which I would encourage you to read in its entirety.  

The American telecommunications industry operates in a $20 billion market in which such major service providers as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon control 98 per cent of the business.  AT&T has given indications that it intends to charge on-line companies for sending high-speed data through D.S.L. lines into consumers' homes.  In essence, this amounts to creating an H.O.V. lane on the information superhighway . . . and turning it into a toll road.  

Such companies as Amazon, Apple, eBay, Google, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo, and YouTube potentially could be affected by this plan, which would give primacy to data packets sent by companies that paid a premium for the fastest service.  In effect, this would reduce the speeds at which non-paying web companies' data was transmitted.  

On the face of it, this simply seems to be smart business.  Companies that pay AT&T for the privilege of using its fastest lines will be able to provide the best service to their customers; those that don't, won't . . . and an AT&T executive has stated that, if regulations are imposed that would prevent the telecommunications giant from recouping the costs of building new lines, AT&T simply won't build the planned high-capacity fiber-optic network.  

Battle lines are being drawn between AT&T and Comcast on one side and Amazon and Google on the other due to what Manjoo describes as "a more fundamental fight over precious communications real estate - a battle for control of the lines that will serve as our main conduit for media in the future."  

Presently, broadband companies labor under few regulations governing what they are able to do with their network lines.  Web companies, internet engineers, and policy experts advocate formal rules to guarantee "network neutrality" . . . the principle that broadband companies must treat all internet data transmissions equally, without giving priority to one content producer over another or, in a more extreme scenario, limiting access to non-preferred companies.  

AT&T has promised not to block access to the public internet, but the telecommunications provider has accused Google and Microsoft of wanting to get a free ride on the network AT&T has expended its corporate capital to construct.  Once again, this simply sounds like a good business strategy, but, if high-definition quality can be reserved for AT&T services or for the services of those companies that pay AT&T a premium, content providers that are preferred by customers but not by communications companies may be given second-class status on the broadband network.  

Currently, the internet is what is known as a "dumb network."  The network itself performs relatively few functions of its own, compared to telephone and cable networks, which has facilitated its growth and utility.  The internet is a conduit functioning on what is called the "end-to-end principle," which makes it conducive to universal use.  This has contributed to the dynamic nature of the new medium, facilitating innovation and establishing an on-line meritocracy.  

Unfortunately, merit and profitability are not always synonymous, particularly not in what is all too often a consumer culture that panders to the lowest common denominator.  The internet is able to serve multiple niche markets due to its universal accessibility, both by the sender and by the recipient.  

Take, for instance, the college football fan who wishes to get his sports news over the internet.  Such a fan may very well pay regular visits to ESPN.com, Sportsline.com, and SI.com . . . but, in addition to the news provided by the mainstream sports media, he may also enjoy getting the more varied editorial takes offered by Every Day Should Be Saturday, MGoBlog, Burnt Orange Nation, or The Blue-Gray Sky, which may not be available elsewhere.  

Without net neutrality, your internet service provider could give preferential treatment to E.S.P.N. (which can afford to pay for premium high-speed service) over E.D.S.B.S. (which cannot) and your I.S.P.'s preference for the former's content over the latter's would mean the Worldwide Leader in Sports could get its videos to you at state of the art speeds while Orson Swindle's YouTube transmissions could take forever to download.  It could also mean that live on-line coverage of sporting events occurred in real time on mainstream media sites while liveblogs of those same sporting events experienced delays in transmission.  

The implications for innovation are obvious.  If data are prioritized, telecommunications companies will give preference to those data packets from which they stand to reap the most profits, which could sound the death knell for smaller content companies serving narrower markets and create the same sort of situation on-line that we find on F.M. radio, which is homogenized, "dumbed down," and impervious to penetration by independent artists.  

The blogosphere's ability to have an impact is dependent upon open access to the internet.  Here in the intercollegiate athletics arena, the stakes may be minor; here, a world-wide web without network neutrality might have had only minimal consequences . . . Colin Cowherd might not have apologized, Neil Everett might not have used a catch phrase, and Kirk Herbstreit might not have been held accountable for his on-air remarks.  

However, we should pause to consider the reason why Dan Rather is not sitting at the C.B.S. News anchor desk today . . . because conscientious webloggers blew the whistle on the mainstream news media's lapse of journalistic ethics.  If information producers could limit on-line access to smaller competitors by paying premium prices to internet providers, such revelations might never again come to light.  

As a traditional conservative, I am no fan of intrusive big government, but public utilities such as power and water are regulated for a reason.  While I prefer to limit the state's functions, I concede that the state has some legitimate purposes and fostering an environment in which information is able to flow freely seems to me to be conducive to good governance in a free society with a republican form of government.  

It was not by accident that the First Amendment was given pride of place as the initial article of the Bill of Rights.  Knowledge is power and the breadth and rapidity of the internet's leveling of the playing field have been phenomenal.  Right now, a few taps on the keyboard or a few clicks on the mouse pad can make The Corporate Headquarters of the San Antonio Gunslingers equally as available to you as E.S.P.N.  

Net neutrality ensures that equality of availability and allows a myriad of voices to be heard.  Data prioritization could result in L.D.'s being effectively blackballed from the information superhighway for criticizing the Worldwide Leader in Sports, just as Clear Channel was able to do to the Dixie Chicks when one of them criticized the leader of the free world.  

You can agree with L.D. or agree with E.S.P.N., just as you can agree with George W. Bush or you can agree with Natalie Maines, but it is a fundamental principle of the American experiment that we are better off giving both a full hearing and a fair fight so that we, the people, can listen to all arguments and make informed decisions.  

God bless America and let freedom ring.  

Go 'Dawgs!

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