The Net Neutrality Debate Has Become a Literal Fart-fest

Last April I wrote an article illuminating the dilemma and buzz phrase that is “net neutrality”. A considerable amount has happened since then, so I thought it was time for a thoughtful follow up on this complex topic. I must admit, when I originally pondered my position on the issue, I had assumed that by now my mind would be made up and I would have effectively throwing my weight behind one side or the other. Sadly, I have grown only more fearful for the future of the Internet.

Net neutrality in a nutshell is as follows: In the past, most network providers have adhered to an unofficial “common carrier” policy – in other words, anyone and everyone has been free to use their network as they please. Now, big providers such as AT&T want the option to charge companies like Google more to give their data a higher-priority than, say, They claim this will allow services that require sustained high-bandwidth (e.g. IPTV, video conferencing) the right-of-way they need; supposedly without priority, they may never function properly in the current tragedy-of-the-commons Internet world. Of course, this plan has been highly controversial, with opponents claiming that the network owners will then block or greatly diminish the speeds of luxury services (e.g. BitTorrent) and ones that may compete with what they (Verizon or AT&T) themselves offer (e.g. Vonage). What we would end up with, they say, is a non-neutral internet – an internet that has a fast lane for the rich and a slow lane for the rest of us poor internet content distributors.

When this issue first hit the fan, I wasn’t sure on which side I stood, and to be honest, I still don’t know. On the one hand, I would hate to see great services become unbearably slow just because their parent companies couldn’t afford the pay-off. Let’s just be honest, who wouldn’t prefer watching streaming video from YouTube over Comcast Entertainment?

Unfortunately without “net neutrality”, Comcast could, at some point in the future, decide to completely block YouTube if they lack a pair of subterranean pockets in which to reach. But of course in lieu of an equal Internet, some really cool new technologies could be developed…or so they say.

On the other hand, “net neutrality” has a few inherent problems of its own, not least of which is that it would require some form of government regulation to keep the network owners from pulling any fast (or in the case, slow) ones. Consequently, government regulation has been disastrous for more than one high-tech industry.

One of the most common examples of this would be to compare the ancient landline telephone system to the fashionable cellular industry. While cell phone companies are free to advance at a comparable rate to most high-tech devices, Ma Bell’s offspring have been trapped, at least for the most part, in the 1950s. Additionally, companies like AT&T feel, and maybe rightly so, that if they invested millions into building these networks, other companies shouldn’t simply be able to, as AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre so eloquently put it, “use [his] pipes for free”.

Naturally, there is no reasoning with people like Mr. Whitacre (save prying his “pipes” from his cold dead hand), so unfortunately congress has been put to the task of effectively deciding on a solution. Most pushes for government regulation have come in the form of amendments to the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996; not surprisingly, a familiar split has developed over the issue, with most Republicans voting against neutrality and Democrats in favor.

I should have known from the start that this whole thing was going to explode into a partisan debate, but for some reason I didn’t see it coming. What we’re now left with is a bunch of ignorant, old, proud-to-have-never-used-email geezers debating the future of how the Internet will function.

An absolutely unbelievable (and highly publicized) example of this would be the “lesson” to the Senate Commerce Committee last month by Alaskan Republican Ted Stevens, author of the “Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006”, on how he thinks the Internet works (audio).

At some point in his 11 minute rant, the 82 year old senator explained, “I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.” He then offered a further clarification of his views: “The regulatory approach is wrong. Your approach is regulatory in the sense that it says, ‘no one can charge anyone for massively invading this world of the Internet’. No, I’m not finished. I want people to understand my position; I’m not going to take a lot of time. They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes.”

And herein lies my worries; the fact of the matter is that the Internet is not just in the hands of politicians, but also in the hands of a bunch of fossils who liken the Internet to a series of pneumatic mail tubes. Worse yet, people like senator Stevens, one of the oldest members of congress, is actually authoring bills that are part of this ongoing debate! Could it get any more absurd?

Thus far very little headway has been made in congress on the side of “net neutrality”. Regardless of who wins, I can’t help but think the outcome will have nothing to do with actual facts. I’m sure the corporate lobbyists will hammer away at these geezers till they vote the party line. And that’s just ridiculous! The World Wide Web is one thing that never should have become a partisan issue!

We’ll see over the next few months what happens, but my guess is that a neutral Internet will soon be all but a memory. And where do I currently stand on the topic? Appalled. Disgusted. Hopeless. All I can hope for is that this article won’t get lost somewhere in that vast network of pipes and tubing.

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