Net neutrality and other conspiracy theories

18 May 2010

Last week, left-wing blog site ThinkProgress announced it had allegedly uncovered a “secret plan” by telecoms companies in the US to lobby against net neutrality regulations by hiring fake grassroots organizations to promote radical and misleading tactics normally associated with the right-wing Tea Party movement.

CNET later reported that the PowerPoint deck and web site at the center of the story ( actually didn’t originate from the telecoms sector at all, but was actually created as a class project for a competition in Florida as an assignment for a "think tank MBA" program.

ThinkProgress isn’t backing off its claims, though it has yet to offer any concrete evidence that any telecoms company had anything directly to do with the No Net Brutality campaign plan, apart from supposedly funding a couple of the activist groups involved (and the evidence for that is weak, judging from the links in their story that I clicked).

Regardless of who’s right or wrong, for my money the most interesting and mind-bending part of the row is just how downright weird the net neutrality debate is becoming in the US.

When net neutrality first reared its head several years ago, it was strictly a business issue. Telcos wanted Web 2.0 companies – especially heavy IP traffic generators like Google – to pay more for guaranteed traffic delivery because they ate up more network capacity and were getting a free ride. Google and other web companies objected, claiming the Internet was designed to provide fair and neutral access for everyone, and without a neutrality provision in place, telcos could engage in anti-competitive practices like throttling the traffic of web services that compete with them (like Skype, say).

Now, the issue has somehow morphed into this strange conspiracy theory in which FCC rules enforcing neutrality will result in a Socialist government takeover of the Internet that will target and shut down every web site in America that criticizes President Barack Obama.

Evidently this all started when Representative Marsha Blackburn (a Republican from Tennessee) described net neutrality as “the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet”, referring to an old and long-defunct FCC policy for broadcasters that required them to be fair and balanced (to coin a phrase) when covering controversial issues.

As someone who worked in broadcasting, I can assure you it’s a wildly inaccurate analogy. The Fairness Doctrine told broadcasters that if they presented a view on a particular issue, they were required under FCC regs to give equal airtime to the opposing camp, whether it was all in the same program, or via paid political advertisements. (Ironically, the FCC eventually ditched the policy in 1987 partly because many broadcasters were choosing not to cover controversial issues at all.)

To compare that to net neutrality is ludicrous. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to make specific editorial decisions on content. Net neutrality does no such thing. I’m not aware of any proposed rule or law on net neutrality that would give the FCC the power to force everyone to provide fair and balanced coverage on their web sites and penalize anyone who fails to do so, or indeed contain any content provisions at all. If anything, net neutrality guarantees the right of everyone to get on the Internet and post anything they want. The argument that “web traffic = speech” is utter nonsense cooked up by people who don’t understand how the Internet works.

So it’s both fascinating and alarming – though perhaps not surprising, all things considered – to see the debate on net neutrality being hijacked and transformed to the point that people are arguing over the scariest aspect of it, even though no one ever proposed in the first place. (As far as I know, anyway. If you can provide examples indicating otherwise, post them in the comments section or send them to me.)

Unfortunately, it looks as though it’s working, according to this Businessweek article, which means that whatever net neutrality policy the FCC comes up with – or is prevented from implementing, either by courts or legislators – may be for all the wrong reasons, and consequently of no real use to anyone.

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