Post’s ‘Web Cops’ Are Off The Beat on Net Neutrality
Post’s ‘Web Cops’ Are Off The Beat on Net Neutrality
Post’s ‘Web Cops’ Are Off The Beat on Net Neutrality

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    The Washington Post has again taken the low road on keeping a free and open Internet. In its latest editorial, the newspaper of record in the Nation’s Capital again declined to view the reality of a duopoly broadband market and a lack of consumer choices.

    In its editorial, “Web Cops,” the newspaper lauds Internet Service Providers that have “poured billions of dollars into building their networks, leading to broader and better service for consumers.” In its discussion of the throttling of BitTorrent applications by Comcast, the Post attempts to strike a feeble balance – ISPs have a right to manage their networks, but the Post writes, “just as important, consumers have a right to know what kind of service they are receiving and whether a particular product or application can be used on their ISPs' network.”

    The editorial sets up a false choice, one extremely damaging to consumers and lacking in vision, writing: “Full disclosure by the ISPs of major network management decisions would go a long way toward addressing this conflict. Disclosure of this type respects the best aspects of a free market: The ISPs make business decisions they believe are necessary, consumers are empowered to make decisions about whether to switch to competing services, and the FCC gets information it needs to ensure that ISPs don't infringe on the freedoms that make the Internet such a powerful tool for entertainment, communications and commerce.”

    There are two faulty assumptions here. First, the idea that disclosure will “go a long way” to solving anything is just not correct. It may go a short way, an itty-bitty way, but a long way, not at all. Simply to tell a customer, “by the way, I’m blocking or throttling your peer-to-peer software” isn’t helpful if the customer rightfully believes he or she has the right to use that software. Knowing that the blocking and throttling are going on doesn’t make it any better, particularly if it’s being done under false pretenses.

    The best research so far is that Comcast and Cox are throttling BitTorrent clients regardless of peak-time operations. Most recently, the Glasnost Project reported that, “The percentage of blocked connections remains high at all times of the day. Our data suggests that the BitTorrent blocking is independent of the time of the day.” That conclusion gives lie so the Post’s Pollyanna-ish outlook that “disclosure of Comcast’s policy led the company to declare it would change.” It may have declared, but there’s little reason to believe anything substantive has happened. Even the announcement that it would work with BitTorrent is simply that – an announcement.

    The second faulty assumption, of course, is that customers truly have any options if they don’t like what Comcast is doing. What are those “competing services” to which the Post refers? In many areas, consumers are doing well if they have a choice of two – telephone and cable. That’s unlike many regions overseas when choices range into the dozens. We can argue whether the existence of more choices negatives the principles of non-discrimination, but until those choices actually exist, the argument is irrelevant.

    Certainly the FCC and Chairman Kevin Martin are on the right track of considering punishing Comcast. But the issue of whether throttling is really “network management” or is a dodge for throttling competition or covering up for an inadequate network is only part of the fight to maintain a free and open Internet. There’s lots more mischief that cable and telephone companies can perpetrate, and it’s not at all clear that the FCC would have the authority to punish them. That’s why many advocates favoring Net Neutrality want the non-discrimination protections of the Communications Act reinstated from the time they were taken away in 2005 by the FCC as applied to high-speed Internet services.

    This editorial isn’t the first for the Post on the Net Neutrality issue. In a June 12, 2006 editorial, “The Internet’s Future,” the Post concluded: “The weakest aspect of the neutrality case is that the dangers it alleges are speculative. It seems unlikely that broadband providers will degrade Web services that people want and far more likely that they will use non-neutrality to charge for upgrading services that depend on fast and reliable delivery, such as streaming high-definition video or relaying data from heart monitors. If this proves wrong, the government should step in. But it should not burden the Internet with preemptive regulation.”

    The newspaper was proved wrong. Web services were degraded. For the record, even those services the Post mentioned two years ago shouldn’t be degraded by having them offered in a non-neutral network.

    But at least two years ago, the Post was sufficiently forthright to note in its editorial that “The Washington Post Co. owns broadband networks that might charge Web sites for fast delivery. It also produces Web content that might be subject to such fees, so it has interests on both sides of this issue.”

    The newspaper didn’t mention that in its May 31, 2008 version. Here’s how the Post’s 2007 annual report described its Cable ONE results: “On the media side, the financial and operational results at Cable ONE have been exceptional. Profits have bounded up during years when not all cable companies have performed as well. Customer service is at an all-time high in an industry not known for that quality.”

    At the end of 2007, the company had 702,700 basic video subscribers (representing about 51% of the 1,371,000 homes passed by the systems) and had in force approximately 223,900 subscriptions to digital video service and 341,000 subscriptions to cable modem service. Digital video and cable modem services are each available in markets serving virtually all of Cable ONE’s subscriber base. Among the digital video services offered by Cable ONE is the delivery of certain premium, cable network and local over-the-air channels in HDTV.” The cable business has been good to the Post, as it contributed $626.4 million in revenue for 2007, an 11 percent increase from 2006. The Post is entitled to its money, certainly, but its readers are also entitled to know the influences behind the editorials as well.