Wednesday, April 26, 2006

[Media Access]

The Net Neutrality Debate

When I imagined media week, I hadn't actually been thinking of this wrinkle: net neutrality. This is a rather wonky issue that I've been slow to get my brain around--but which could have astounding ramifications on how we use the internet. It has become the issue of the week among many bloggers, and I will direct you to their comments in a moment. But first, Ezra Klein summarizes the issue (and seriously, this is the shortest summary I've seen):
The net, though, relies on equal access to bandwidth, and a consortium of telecom behemoths are preparing to deny that to some. The principle at hand is called “net neutrality”; it means that broadband carriers, the folks who own the physical connection infrastructure, can’t decide how it’s used or who can use it. If you’re using SBC as your carrier, they can’t redirect you away from Comcast’s website. If you’re using AT&T, they don’t bar you from patronizing competing online telephone providers like Vonage. In short, as CNET put it, broadband carriers cannot configure their pipes to play favorites. In other countries, this principle is sacrosanct: South Korea, Japan, and the UK have all enshrined it in law. America has not. And if the telecom providers have their way, the net neutrality will give way to online favoritism....

Here’s what that would look like: Right now, the net is best described by its ubiquitous pseudonym: the information superhighway. It is, essentially, an interstate, freely traveled by all cars, regardless of weight. What the telecoms want is to section it off into a series of toll roads, which will charge based on vehicle characteristics. So heavy travelers – sites like Google and AOL and Yahoo and YouTube – will be charged far more, at least at the beginning, than light travelers (say, local community bulletin boards). The next step would be for the telecoms to enter into content distribution deals with various providers. Think of the toll road operator partnering up with Toyota, and attempting to choke Toyota’s competition by making it prohibitively expensive for competing sedans....

The first showdown came on Thursday April 6th, when the House Telecom Committee voted against Congressman Ed Markey’s net neutrality resolution, 23-8. Nothing neutral about that. The prime mover against Markey has been subcommittee chair Joe Barton, and a quick glance at his funding sources may explain why. $57,000 from SBC, $20,000 from Comcast, and so on.
The members of that committee, incidentally, are here. (Oregonians reading this blog will delight in learning that the one non-Democrat is representing our state on the committee--Greg Walden.)

Other sources
The other folks covering this include (but are by no means limited to):
eRobin (also here), Kevin Drum (also here), and Reed Hundt. That's probably a lot more than you'll need.

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