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Never Mind the Death Knell

For much of this year, thereís been a simmering battle in Congress and in geekdom over something called ďnet neutrality.Ē Itís been a little frustrating to figure out what itís about. The explanations Iíve heard and read about net neutrality have been pretty much incomprehensible. And to make matters worse, the various sides of net-neutrality debate have been issuing Chicken Little threats that have the sound of naked, over-the-top hyperbole.

So I went to whatís become my main source of everything fact-wise, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia made up entirely of volunteer contributions, and was immediately presented with one of Wikipediaís shortcomings. The Wikipedia page for ďnet neutralityĒ had a comment on the top that said ďThe neutrality of this article is disputed,Ē apparently an allusion to a net-neutrality issue of a different sort. Wow! This is what we in the irony business call irony!

You see, whenever there is a current controversy about something, itíll usually be reflected in its Wikipedia entry. And thereís a lot of controversy about net neutrality right now, thus the Wikipedia page I found is a rambling, convoluted mess, the result of geeks on all sides of the issue spewing geek-ese at each other. There were lots of links, though, that allowed me to read more-complicated stuff that got me further confused and frustrated. But, what the hell. Hereís my report:

On one hand, how can one be against net neutrality? The Internetís great, itís neutral (whatever that means), and it should stay that way. Right? Then I learn that net neutrality requires legislation, requires new regulations, which has resulted in an anti-neutrality group calling itself ďHands Off the Internet.Ē Which sounds pretty good, too, doesnít it? Who wants anybodyís hands on the Internet?

Then I saw Sen. Ted Stevens, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which deals with issues like this, arguing on TV against net neutrality. What a freakiní idiot. You can go to YouTube and see and hear him; thereís even a couple cool techno tunes based on Stevensí incoherent, ignorant rant about the Internet on the Senate floor. It occurs to me that as a general matter, anything this boob is against, I tend to be for, and so I figure Iíll be for net neutrality until Iím strongly dissuaded otherwise.

As I understand it, proponents of net neutrality want to keep the companies that sell access to the Webómainly Internet-service providers, cable companies, and telephone companiesófrom tinkering with what is today universal and nondiscriminatory access to the Internet. For the most part, everybodyís Internet today is the same. But the access providers have been talking recently about selling the equivalent of ďfast-lane passesĒ for a premium price to those who want the fastest Internet service. For a fee, your Internet will be a lot better.

Which may not seem so bad at first glance, but a big fear is that these providers will keep the fastest Internet service for themselves. Your cable company delivers movies and broadband Internet service. What happens if the cable company starts delivering its movies faster than it allows any other companies to deliver their movies? The consumer gets screwed, thatís what. Already, there have been scattered reports of access providers trying to block or hinder their customers access to things like VoiP phones, which would compete with the providerís own phone service. Even more spooky are providers that decide to block customerís Internet access to certain Web sites that are critical of the provider, or in one case, advocated for the unionization of the providerís employees.

Another fear is that only the biggest companies will be able to afford the fastest service, which will then stamp out smaller, slower competitors, leading to the Wal-Mart-ization of online commerce, and along with it, the death of new and innovative business models that a leveled Internet encourages. For example, say Google could, for a fee, make its user-posted video service go really fast. Google would do it, because Google has more money than God. If I were Google, Iíd do it. But it would destroy less-funded upstarts like YouTube, if it couldnít afford the faster service.

The big telecom companies say two-tiered pricing is necessary to pay for all of the infrastructure, and that bigger users need to pay more. They say that new neutrality regulations will destroy the Internet, because they wonít afford to build it up anymore. Which is utter nonsense. First, the big telecom companies have used the infrastructure ruse every time theyíve wanted money or favors, and they usually grievously overplay their hand. The Internet got built up so far with these premiums, and everything Iíve read is that the Internetís infrastructure is currently being, if anything, hideously overbuilt. Second, while big users ought to pay more because they use more, thatís not the same as saying the big users then have a right to go faster. They donít.

Some net-neutrality proponents say that tiered pricing and allowing access providers to tinker unbridled with Internet access will be the death of the Internet. Címon, get real. Itíll still be there, and itíll still be the Internet, it just wonít be as cool or exciting. It wonít be as good, but it certainly wonít be dead. So dudes, donít insult our intelligence, and get your rhetoric together. Youíre not going to beat an imbecile like Ted Stevens by sounding as crazy as he is.

óPaul Rapp

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