Political Flavors

Letter Writing Sunday #1 Net Neutrality

Posted in Editorials on January 2nd, 2011

Letter writing Sunday is a meme I saw on Vegankid‘s (now seemingly defunct) blog a few years ago. The idea is to write a letter every Sunday “of social importance.” It could be to a Member of Congress, state or local government or to a corporation about an important issue. It’s something I’ve always wanted to make a habit, and so every time I write such a letter I will cross-post it here and encourage others to do the same.

Net Neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) treat all content the same. Such a policy is fair to everyone and keeps the internet a place where innovation and free speech can thrive. Activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been urging the government to take action and codify this policy into law or as an official FCC rule. The reasoning is that if this is not done, ISPs could charge more for some types of content than others or even ban some websites. For example, if you get your cable television and high speed internet from Comcast, they may decide that you have to pay more to stream movies from Netflix because Netflix service directly competes with Comcast’s on demand service.

The fear is that since there are so few ISPs and in many areas of the United States only one to choose from, they could use their power to do more than further their own economic interests. What if they charged more to access websites about political ideas they didn’t like? Or banned religious or other content they found objectionable? The flip side of the coin is that some websites could pay the ISPs for their pages to load faster. So if you wanted to order a book from that neat independent bookstore online, it might load slower than Barnes&Noble or Borders. Or what if Rupert Murdoch paid for Fox News to load faster than any other news websites? This type of scheme would undermine the freedom we have on the internet today for ideas to compete on an even playing field. Considering that right now most media companies including television, radio and publishing are owned by only six firms in the United States, making the internet a place where everyone could not equally participate would be a serious detriment to free speech.

I have read the arguments against Net Neutrality. The can be summed up as follows: The internet is not broken, and so we should not fix it. Any attempt to codify net neutrality is a power grab by big government to intrude into our lives and therefore unacceptable. It is a detriment to the free market.

The first point, that making Net Neutrality the law is a power grab is not true. It would be enshrining into law the policy that has allowed the internet to grow over the past decades. We would simply be preserving the status quo. Secondly, Net Neutrality enhances the free market. One of the central tenets of capitalism is that there be low barriers to entry. Allowing some players to pay for more and better access would create an unreasonable barrier to entry for new start-ups. Also, the internet improves the free market in real life by giving consumers more information about the goods and services that are available. Allowing big companies to have better access than smaller ones would create an externality.

The FCC has recently created rules about Net Neutrality. They are a half-measure full of loopholes and are the same rules that telecom companies have been lobbying for.

It is for these reasons that I will be sending the following letter to my Congressional Representative and both of my Senators:

I am writing to you today to ask you to take action and support Net Neutrality. I urge you to support Internet Freedom Preservation Act should it be reintroduced to Congress. The FCC’s recent rules do not go far enough to ensure free speech and fair competition on the internet. Please take a stand for this important cause.

For further reading:
How to file a complaint with the FCC
On McIlheran’s disastrously simplistic opposition to “net neutrality”
Steve Wozniak to the FCC: Keep the Internet Free
The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time by Senator Al Franken
Save The Internet

4 Responses to “Letter Writing Sunday #1 Net Neutrality”

  1. Andrew T. Says:

    Your post summarizes the same concerns about precedent and freedom of expression that I have. The saddest thing is about this issue is that, even though it’s an abstract topic that begs to be approached with critical thought, it’s been one of the latest targets for corporatist, prey-upon-prejudices FUD: “Oh noes! Them government wants to control the net! That’s bad!” This sometimes even effects people in technologically-aware circles like Slashdot, who should know better.

    Should the government regulate the content of the Internet? No. Should corporate Internet service providers? Of course not. Should the government exercise regulation upon Internet service providers to prevent them from unduly dictating and discriminating in the absence of competition what content their subjects should be allowed to access? Of course.

    In reality, net neutrality existed as a matter of course for years before it was ever a concern. The Internet was built upon public infrastructure available to all. Moreover, dozens if not hundreds of dial-up ISPs existed nationwide, and anyone dissatisfied with the performance or policies of one was free to painlessly switch to another.

    But competition didn’t survive the transition to broadband. Due to their lack of common-carrier status, cable companies and DSL infrastructure providers were endowed with monopolies on the Internet services provided on their lines. Many broadband ISPs (Comcast, Time Warner) are massive content providers as well…and without consumer choice or regulation steering their actions, there’s no corporate incentive for them NOT to suppress packets from bandwidth-intensive or piracy-connotated protocols, or “shape” traffic so that their own services load faster. Exacerbating the situation, the FCC HAD the authority to stipulate non-discriminatory service from providers until 2005, when it was largely stripped away.

    What this all goes to show is that net neutrality is more relevant an issue now than ever, and losing it forever would be a tragedy. More specifically, losing it would mean a continued shift back to the “walled garden” model of 1980s and early 1990s online services (AOL, Delphi, Prodigy, GEnie, and the like); where proprietary providers dictated a limited subset of content that subscribers would be allowed to access at a high price. I’m not looking forward for those days to return.

  2. MissCherryPi Says:

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for your comment. I believe that Americans must ask Congress to act on this. The FCC is not directly accountable to the public, and although they are a part of the executive branch, I do not think that calls to the White House public comment line are enough when so much is at stake.

  3. Andrew T. Says:

    I expressed concerns to my senators a few months ago. Unfortunately, one has since been displaced by a “corporation disguised as a human being;” if you get my drift…

  4. MissCherryPi Says:

    That is unfortunate. However, I think that despite recent, very flawed polling the issue could have broad bipartisan support, it did a few years ago at least.

    It’s also apparent that there is a lot of confusion on this issue, of the likes of “Keep the government out of Medicare!”

    Apparently legislation is being introduced in the House, but it seeks to merely repeal the FCC rules and not establish Net Neutrality.

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