Roadblocks on the Information Highway?(A)
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” said A.J. Liebling. Nobody really owns the decentralized network of networks that make up the internet, but major telecommunications companies like AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon, and Comcast act as gatekeepers that own how millions of individuals connect to the Internet. As they invest billions of dollars in new fiber optic networks to allow service offerings like online movies and internet-based telephone calls, they’ve argued they should be able to charge users and even content providers for access to those faster systems. The same way UPS might choose to pay the tolls on private toll roads that have cropped up in congested cities like Denver and LA to ensure on-time delivery of packages, the telecoms argue that content providers could pay to use less congested, high speed network access, especially for data-intensive offerings like online video.
That seems fairly reasonable on its face, but it raises troubling questions. There are lots of surprise internet success stories from Google to You Tube that might never have gotten off the ground if they’d had to pay millions of dollars in fees to reach users from the start. High fees or slow download speeds could easily stop new innovation like that represented by EBay, which grew from an online auction site that a programmer built over a Labor Day weekend in order to sell a friend’s collection of Pez dispensers into a company with $4.5 billion in annual revenues today.
Even more troubling, allowing service providers to discriminate in how quickly they provide different types of content could hinder access to websites of political and advocacy groups that don’t have the resources to pay for faster loading, or that advance ideas not favored by giant telecommunications companies. As a real world example, Telus, a major Canadian telecom company, blocked access to a union website and other sites supporting its workers involved in a labor dispute. AOL blocked all e-mails that mentioned a website fighting the company’s proposed pay-per-e-mail pricing plan. In both cases these blockages were brief, but the possibilities of private censorship of the web remain troubling enough that groups across the political spectrum—from MoveOn to the Christian Coalition—have joined together to fight for tough protections of the internet.
The issue gained prominence in the last session of Congress after the Federal Communications Commission ruled in August 2005 that internet services provided by phone companies are not bound by the common carrier regulations. (Those are rules dating back to the days of telegraphs that prevent phone companies from deciding whose calls they carry on their phone lines and whose calls they won’t carry.) To replace the common carrier standard for services like DSL, the FCC established four net neutrality principles, which many advocates see as insufficient protection against content discrimination. However, the FCC did fine a small local telephone company, Madison River Communications for blocking its DSL customers from using competing internet telephone services and the company stopped that practice.
In 2006, Congress considered five different bills to protect network neutrality, although none of them passed. Incoming Democratic Congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, have expressed support for network neutrality legislation, and the next Congress is much more likely to act on the issue. This past year, we contacted several key members of Congress in favor of legislation to protect innovation and freedom of information on the internet, and will be doing so again as the new Congress convenes. I just hope they got our e-mails….