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June 08, 2006

Control the Telcos Before They Control You

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

In trying to rally opposition to Net Neutrality, big telecommunications companies have built their case around the badness of regulating the internet.  (The big anti-Net-Neutrality site emphasizes anti-regulation themes with the slogan Hands Off The Internet.  Of course, a certain invisible hand is exempt from their slogan.)  It’s a smart rhetorical move.  Many freedom-loving internet folk oppose regulations on internet speech, and the big telcos’ rhetoric tries to suggest that opposing Net Neutrality is part of the same cause. Of course, regulating internet service providers and regulating speech are completely different things.  People who care about the freedom to express their ideas and engage with the ideas of others ought to support Net Neutrality.  If you don’t regulate the telcos’ ability to control the internet, they’ll use that power to interfere with free speech themselves. 

What Net Neutrality supporters want is for data from different sources to all be treated equally by telecommunications providers. Otherwise, big telcos might otherwise offer preferential treatment to some sources over others – for example, setting things up so that political websites that argue against the telcos’ interests will load very slowly, while everything else will load at normal speeds. The telcos might also charge some providers for a guarantee of high-quality service, or even charge some providers for the favor of giving low-quality service to these providers’ competitors. A bidding war between political parties to make the other side’s websites and blogs load at tortoise speed would be a disaster. 

In response to the telcos’ anti-regulation rhetoric, it’s important to keep in mind that they are, in many cases, heavily regulated monopolies. It’s not like Net Neutrality will be putting the hand of government regulation into some frightening place where it’s never been before. All we’ll be doing is making an important and useful addition to what local governments have always done – regulating the local telecommunications monopolies so that they don’t abuse the power that monopolies have.

What I care about in freedom of speech is the opportunity to express my ideas so that others can hear them, and the opportunity to hear the ideas of others. Letting the big telcos give preferential treatment to some sites over others, or some messages over others, could deny me these opportunities. If federal regulation is necessary to preserve these opportunities – and I think it is – we ought to have that regulation. And that’s why I support the regulations that constitute Net Neutrality.

There's a lot of internet petitions out there in support of Net Neutrality.  Partly to make the point that this is another important progressive issue that John Edwards is on the right side of, I'll link to his petition

June 8, 2006 in Web/Tech | Permalink


If you’ve been following the network neutrality debate, you may have come across a group calling themselves ‘Hands Off Our Internet.’ According to their website, these folks claim to be “a nationwide coalition of Internet users united together in the belief that the Net's phenomenal growth over the past decade stems from the ability of entrepreneurs to expand consumer choices and opportunities without worrying about government regulation.” That’s some pretty big talk for a shadow organization that actually represents the big telecoms.

I especially love their name, ‘Hands off Our Internet’ ('HOOI', as in a steaming bunch of 'Hooey'). Considering who these people are, you can really get a glimpse into the mind of the petulant corporate American culture that has zero experience in hearing the word ‘no’. I mean, exactly who do you think they mean when they say ‘Our’ internet? Is it the collective ‘We’ as in ‘We the People’? No, of course not. They mean ‘Their’ internet, because as big telecom industries they feel a sense of entitlement to run network traffic as they see fit by effectively assuming ownership over your surfing habits.

This is not a syntactical debate about pronoun usage but rather a metaphoric encapsulation of the entire manufactured controversy over net neutrality – it’s not about speed per se, it’s about whom the internet truly belongs to. Is it the democratically-organized egalitarian entity belonging to We / Us, or is it the new private playground of the big kids who would like Us to keep our greedy, common, bourgeois hands off Their internet.

Go ahead and take a look through the site, you wouldn’t believe some of the scare tactics they try to shove down your throat. For example:

This is about how we’re going to pay for the next generation Internet, and creating different ways to deliver web content to the home as fast as possible. This is also about whether we want the government to dictate how the next version of the Internet is run before we even get there … Who will pay for the pipes that will deliver the next generation Internet? What is the best way to ensure packets of information get across the Internet in the most efficient manner possible? How will traffic be managed when 100 million movies are being downloaded at any given moment?

I find it fascinating that whenever corporations are forced to act in an egalitarian manner they resort to the ‘stifling innovation’ argument. Yet it is patently absurd to assume that governmental enforcement of net neutrality or lack thereof will have any marked effect on this hypothetical ‘next generation’ internet. It will come when it comes, no sooner and no later, and it will be the telecom companies who pay for it or somebody else will swoop in and do it for them. Why? Because there is money to be made and an entire global economy with which to keep pace, that’s why.

Assume if you will that net neutrality fails and the big telecoms are allowed to run amok with their plans to create a tiered internet system. With all that extra money, is it more likely that they will reinvest in the infrastructure and create a better product? Or will they do the same thing they do with their Bush tax cuts and buy an extra Porsche or twelve? Besides, do you really want your next-gen internet molded in the vision of telecom corporations or would you rather have one created democratically, even if it takes a few months (at the most) longer?

To take the other side, if net neutrality passes and the big telecoms are forced to keep the internet traffic moving as it already is – in other words, do nothing different than they have been doing from the beginning – do you really think they won’t lay the infrastructure for next-gen internet? Of course they will! They are just as much in competition with each other for your patronage and when the technology comes of age they will all battle to be the first to offer enhanced service. And if they act like spoiled brats and follow through with their threats then other companies and investors will seize the opportunity and render the existing telecoms obsolete. I mean, how many wagon wheel companies refused to get into the auto trading business. Adios Antiguos!

The rest of their site is a loose collection of threats and scare tactics. Here are a couple of the more egregious ones:

The inevitable cascade of private litigation (and can anyone seriously argue that there won’t be?) will add a whole new level of cost to our Internet usage. The users will pay, and they’ll find the cure is far worse than the disease.

“Legal costs will shoot through the roof — draining the pockets of everyone involved.” And this is the nirvana the regulated neutrality is supposed to bring us?

Who is going to be bringing all of these supposed lawsuits? Why, the big telecoms, that’s who! Or rather the consumers who are suing the telecoms for behaving like toddlers. This not-so-thinly veiled threat is simply an affirmation of their win-win strategy: If net neutrality fails, they will make extra money from the larger web entities like Google and Amazon. If it passes, they will make extra money by raising rates on consumers and blaming litigation costs. This is no different than blaming medical malpractice suits for skyrocketing insurance prices – it may sound convincing but is effectively nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Then they trot out this supposedly spontaneous letter from their collective unions’ president:

“The proposed net neutrality bill will result in the unintended consequence of delayed deployment of high-speed networks, with particularly negative impact on underserved communities” … [The president] goes on to say that if this neutrality regulation bill passes Congress, the U.S. “will fall even further behind the rest of the world [in broadband deployment], and our rural and low-income populations will wait even longer to enter the digital age.”

So in other words, if you pass net neutrality, you might as well be urinating into the water supply of poor, hungry children in third-world America. Really. You should be ashamed of yourself for not letting the telecoms have their way. Jerk.

Clearly, the big telecoms would like to couch the net-neutrality debate as the first step to governmental regulation of the internet. The reality is quite the opposite. Net neutrality is not about regulating the internet at all, it’s about regulating the service providers. Specifically, we’re trying to send a message telling them that THEY can’t be the ones to regulate it in THEIR favor. In other words, keep your filthy, greedy, covetous, gluttonous, immoral, malevolent, grubby, smutty, ugly, lazy, nasty, vile, venomous, loathsome, despicable, wretched, banal, ill-tempered, foul-intentioned, black-hearted, miserly, petty, sanctimonious hands off MY-MINE-MY Internet!

The Hindsight Factor
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Posted by: urthwalker | Jun 8, 2006 6:29:09 AM

You’re in favor of freedom of speech. Well, whoopee. You completely gloss over the main point: do the telcos have an unshakable monopoly (or near monopoly) position, or do they not? You say you favor “regulating the local telecommunications monopolies so that they don’t abuse the power that monopolies have,” but as to whether they have such power, all you say is you “think” such regulation is necessary. You “think” so. Well, why?

If the telcos do not have such power, then we should not regulate them. For example, every newspaper and magazine in the country gives “preferential treatment to some sites over others, or some messages over others.” Should we regulate all newspapers and magazines? When I was growing up, there were 3 big networks. The feds did not regulate how much they charged for advertising, or when in a show such advertising could occur, and we did just fine. Google likewise gives “preferential treatment to some sites over others, or some messages over others.” Should we regulate Google?

Similarly, why can’t we just rely on antitrust, as in other industries?

I don’t have a strong opinion on net neutrality, but I’ve started reading about the subject because I find it interesting. The only interesting thing about your piece, however, was that it was so shallow.

Posted by: ostap | Jun 8, 2006 10:59:09 AM

urthwalker, I work with Hands Off the Internet and would like to address some of the points you raised. First, I assure you our colation isn't called Hands Off Our Internet as you can see,


Second, we aren't a shadow organization, it is clearly stated on the website who our members are including, AT&T, BellSouth, the National Assocaiton of Manufacturers, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Citizens Against Government Waste, just to name a few.

Contrary to what net neutrality supporters claim, the ISPs don't want to block access to content, but as you mentioned create a faster tier of the internet capable of handling the increased demand for video downloads and other bandwidth intensive technologies.

In fact, this week FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, claimed further net neutrality regualtions were unecessary.

"Consumers need to be able to access all the content that's available over the Internet without being impeded by the access provider," Martin said. "But at the same time, we recognized that the people that are deploying these networks may offer differentiated speeds and differentiated products to the consumer.

"And if you offer different tiers of speeds, a consumer chooses the lowest tier, and he wants to access content that would require higher speeds than he has purchased, he's not being blocked from access. He just hasn't purchased the speed that's necessary."

Martin added that the commission has demonstrated its willingness to step in and take action if it sees, for example, a large cable or phone company discriminating against certain content providers. However, he said: "We're not seeing widespread examples of abuses in the marketplace that would justify us trying to adopt rules at this time."


Posted by: Wilson | Jun 8, 2006 2:51:47 PM

While others muddle through what the organization means, I'll just take a shot at your closing sentence, Ezra.

Net Neutrality, or plain-old net neutrality for those that don't want to use the telco's capital letters to describe the opposing viewpoint, is not simply a progressive issue. This one runs the gamut between a vast majority of political viewpoints.

Centrist? Check. Conservative? Check. Libertarian? Check. Liberal? Check. Moderate? Check. Natural law? Check.

By putting in the dividing line, you do the telco's work for them and make this a purely partisan issue rather than a consumer-versus-producer argument. For regardless of our political standpoint, we here are all consumers. When we write, we consume. When we read, we consume. When we watch Ann Coulter make an ass out of herself on the YouTube feed, we consume. When we listen to Glenn Reynolds' podcast, we consume. Everything we do, even to the point of humming the tune from "The Internet Is For Porn" under our breath while doing our mundane jobs around the house, is based off our consumption of the telco's production.

That is the tagline that should be pushed at every opportunity, not whichever real-world partisan ideal it closely falls into. For once our political instincts get attached to something, we will lose those with opposing political instincts.

Posted by: Off Colfax | Jun 8, 2006 3:32:54 PM

"The internet is for porn" was really funny.

And the post was by me.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 8, 2006 3:55:27 PM

Oh. Sorry, Neil. I need to learn how to read bylines, I suppose.

Posted by: Off Colfax | Jun 9, 2006 3:40:28 AM

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