Net neutrality: It's the election, stupid

15 May 2006
00:00

One of the pleasing things about the "Net neutrality" argument, from the point of view of a weekly columnist, is that no one is neutral about it.

Depending on who you talk to - or rather, who you listen to - it's a debate either about fair access to the Internet and freedom of speech, or it's about the right of firms to be free of government interference and the future viability of broadband. Or maybe it's just about the end-of-year election.

You may recall this all began when AT&T and Verizon revealed their desire to charge more for certain backbone services. Meaning: for free you get best-effort; for a premium you get guaranteed delivery.

Thanks to broadband, carriers' network traffic has risen sharply. With the age of IPTV and movie downloads upon us, bandwidth use is about to ramp up exponentially.

Someone's got to pay the bills, and the telcos have in mind that it should be the portal guys - Google, Yahoo, MSN, Amazon, eBay - which they accuse of getting a free ride on their expensive network infrastructure.

Because of that claimed free ride, and with a little help from the miracle of advertising, consumers get a free ride off the portals. The underlying threat is that consumers might have to foot the bill. And that's a bad thing, especially in an election year.

It has been the portal companies that cleverly coined the phrase "Net neutrality". Who could possibly be against that‾ They argue that tiering will mean the creation of second-class online citizens and have found Congressional sponsors of bills that will enshrine the status quo in law.

They also received unexpected support recently from the financial services industry, whose business is increasingly done online. Banks and online stock traders fear that they too, will be hit by extra bandwidth fees.

Internet First Amendment

Both sides have good principles to espouse. Here are a couple of soundbites.

From pro-Neutrality site savetheinternet.com: "Congress is pushing a law that would abandon the Internet's First Amendment - a principle called Network Neutrality that prevents companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from deciding which Web sites work best for you - based on what site pays them the most. Your local library shouldn't have to outbid Barnes & Noble for the right to have its Web site open quickly on your computer."

Right on!

On the infrastructure side. Rocco Commisso, CEO of New York cable firm Mediacom, complained that Google was asking for "special favors" despite having market cap bigger than the entire cable sector.

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