Who gets to control what’s passing through those pipes?
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to “Intractable Tech Battles!” Today—net neutrality! Yes, net neutrality: it’s in the news, it’s just been in the courts and, sooner or later, it will affect you! It’s my pleasure to introduce Pro, who’s in favor of net neutrality, and Con, who’s against it.
Pogue: Now, Pro, whose side do you represent?
Pro: Why, nearly every proconsumer organization on earth, including the Consumers Union and Common Cause. Also, the creators of the Internet (including Vinton Cerf) and the Web (including Tim Berners-Lee). And every true believer in free speech, innovation and the American way.
Pogue: And you, Con?
Con: I represent the companies that bring America its Internet, including Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner.
Pogue: Okay, Pro, let’s start simple: What is this “network neutrality”?
Pro: It’s the idea that all Internet data should be equal. That the Comcasts and Verizons of the world can provide the pipes but should have no say in what passes through them. The Internet providers shouldn’t be allowed to charge different companies more or less for their data or to slow down, or block, access to Web sites and services they don’t like.
Pogue: Isn’t that the way the Internet has always been?
Pro: Yes. Neutrality has been a core democratizing principle of the Internet since the day it was born. Internet service should be like phone service: the phone company can’t make the connection worse if they don’t approve of the person you’re calling.
Con: But times have changed. Today Netflix and YouTube videos clog our pipes with enormous amounts of data. Or consider the BitTorrent crowd, which uses our lines to download insane exabytes of software, movies and music—illegally. Or how about Google and Skype? They’ve created services that let people make phone calls—for free—on networks that we spent billions to build. Why shouldn’t all those services pay their share?
Pro: Because net neutrality protects innovation. If big companies such as Netflix and Google could pay to get special treatment—faster speeds, more bandwidth—little start-ups would be at a disadvantage.
Con: Net neutrality is stifling innovation! If we could charge higher fees to the biggest bandwidth hogs, we could afford to build advanced fiber networks that permit all kinds of new Internet services.
Pro: But what about freedom of speech? Without net neutrality, Comcast could give priority to video from TV networks it owns—such as NBC—and slow down the signals from its rivals.
Con: We wouldn’t do that. Pinky swear. Verizon said that giving “unblocked access to lawful Web sites … will not change.”
Pro: Oh no? Then why was Verizon the company that led the charge to strike down net neutrality in court?
Con: Ah, you mean the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals decision in January. Yes, the court already struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 net neutrality rules—proving that I’ve been right all along.
Pro: You were never right. The FCC lost that one on a technicality. And the American public will ultimately be the losers.
Con: You call that a technicality? It was the FCC itself that originally classified us Internet providers as an “information service,” which isn’t susceptible to much regulation, instead of a “telecommunications service,” which is. It’s the FCC’s fault.
Pro: On that point, you are correct. The FCC chair who voted for that initial misclassification is now the chief lobbyist for the telecom companies. It was a fox-in-the-henhouse situation—one that the current chair, if he has any backbone, will quickly reverse, despite his own background lobbying for big telecoms.
Pogue: And I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Join us next time! If your Internet provider allows it.