To hear some big-time business columnists tell it, fighting for freedom is a bad thing.
The usually sensible Steve Pearlstein at the Washington Post notes that, “net neutrality zealots” (also known as “ayatollahs of net neutrality”) worked themselves into a “self-righteous lather” over the Verizon-Google compromise on Net Neutrality, caring more about “principles” than the “real world.”
For Joe Nocera over at the New York Times, the Verizon-Google deal was a “well-meaning proposal,” that is being set upon by “fierce, unyielding proponents” of an open Internet, a group that includes Public Knowledge as part of the “net neutrality purists.”
These two columns by respected writers point to an unfortunate tendency among reporters who peer down from Olympian heights onto the world of mortals to bless a compromise as a way to settle a dispute, regardless whether the compromise is productive. There is the surface “pox on both their houses” approach, although it seems as if in practice the tendency further is distinguished by the pejorative descriptions of liberal or progressive parties, and rarely of conservative or business-oriented opinions or groups.
For example, while calling public interest groups names, rarely are telephone and cable companies called out for spending millions of dollars in an attempt to gain control over what had been the most open and free platform for expression and commerce ever invented. Rarely, if ever, are rules seen as a solution to curbing bad corporate behavior – it’s always rules and regulations are seen as the tools of the radical fringe that wants to curb big businesses’ progress. It’s as if the Gulf disasters, the financial/mortgage meltdown and the contaminated eggs had never happened.
Had this tendency been in existence a couple of hundred years ago, we might have seen this from prominent columnists:
“The angry words from hotheads throughout the colonies, principally from Massachusetts and Virginia, are an affront to good sense. While some of what they want might be helpful, their attitudes are not. There must be a good middle ground, such as allowing Colonial legislatures to exist and to make rules in some areas, but not in others, which should be left to the Crown. Taxation and defense are properly the duty of the King and of Parliament, to be enforced by the Governor. Other items may be delegated to Colonial assemblies, subject to veto.”
Then again, there was the dispute between abolitionists and those who favored the “peculiar institution” that existed 150 years ago. There were some compromises attempted, (See Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act) all of which failed.
Would the equivalent of today’s columnists have written:
“Somewhere between the rantings of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Ward Beecher, who are peddling the nonsense slavery is evil, and the southern politicians like John C. Calhoun, who cling to the argument of states rights, is this stubborn reality: The southern economy needs to exist, supported by cheap labor. Instead of slavery, one compromise should be widespread adoption of long-term indentured servitude. The slaves of today would be freed, yet their labor would be tied to the land for years, ensuring the continued productivity of the southern economy.”
We are not comparing Net Neutrality to either colonial freedom or to slavery. This is an allegorical analysis of the foolhardiness of the faux evenhandedness and worthless compromise combined with a dose of irrelevant factoid and opinion.
In this case, there is the small picture of Net Neutrality and the bigger picture of moving the economy to a broadband basis. Nocera, for example, repeats the Verizon/industry talking point that it’s “unrealistic” that all traffic should be treated the same, particularly in the wireless environment with “bandwidth hogs.” No one has said that telephone and cable companies can’t manage their networks. The issue is whether the company providing the network can favor one company’s content over another’s on the basis of a financial arrangement, i.e., payoff so that one service works better than another on the Internet. It has nothing to do with amount of bandwidth consumed – that’s the network provider’s problem. (And blaming customers for actually using the bandwidth they bought is not smart. It’s AT&T’s fault that it can’t keep up with the iPhone customer base, not the customers, as Nocera argues.)
There is one Internet. People access it through a wire or from a wireless connection. Consumption of bandwidth is irrelevant to the discussion whether favoritism should exist. That’s why we “purists” don’t like the Verizon-Google “compromise.” It may be fine for Google, with its Android phones, and for Verizon, with its wireless network, but not for consumers who have one set of rules if connected by a network and another if connected through the air. That’s why we opposed it. The best story on the Verizon-Google deal is this one from AOL Daily Finance, which puts it into perspective.
The whole point of the Internet is that customers choose what they want to do online, and companies, which offer services and features, have the opportunity to supply them. It is not a cable system; it is, to use Nocera’s sarcastic term, the “sacred Internet.” It’s sacred because no one has yet the ability to control it as cable operators choose what goes onto their networks.
Yes, it’s necessary to prevent a company like Comcast from throttling the bandwidth of BitTorrent users (regardless of the amount of bandwidth they were using or what they were using it for – see Nocera again). They didn’t throttle streaming video, which uses a lot more network capacity. That’s why rules are needed, so that if a company does violate the openness principles, another company or a consumer can bring a complaint and the agency will have the authority to resolve it.
There is no peril for a carrier now, or even a threat of one. Consumers don’t have great choice in broadband carriers and the legal status is uncertain. This is not “much ado about very little.” It’s much ado about keeping the Internet as it is based on law, not on corporate good will.
That’s why the issue has to be decided in the public interest of everyone, not in the private interest of carriers. In her new book, “Internet Architecture and Innovation,” Stanford Professor Barbara van Schewick writes, “Leaving the evolution of the network to network providers will significantly reduce the Internet’s value to society.”
That’s why the “Third Way” proposed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski makes sense. It would take back FCC jurisdiction over what is a service it should have jurisdiction over, yet without the burdens of all of the other regulation that accompanied the old “common carrier” regimes of the past. (Yes, future FCCs could change that, but that possibility exists any time.)
It is a comprehensive solution that not only takes care of the issue of the open Internet, but opens the way for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to have the legal authority it needs to deal with affordable broadband, public safety, cybersecurity and a host of other issues. Yes, there are principles involved, principles that shape the real world and should be enforced in order for the “sacred Internet” based on freedom for consumers and web developers and service innovators to continue to exist. If that makes us “purists” and “zealots” and whatever else, then fine.