Net neutrality and the political point of no return

Summary:My fellow blogger George Ou has taken me to task for helping to politicize a subject matter which he feels is undeserving of any politicization.  Commenting on a blog entry I wrote yesterday (see Some must see Net neutrality videos) which pointed to both MoveOn.

My fellow blogger George Ou has taken me to task for helping to politicize a subject matter which he feels is undeserving of any politicization.  Commenting on a blog entry I wrote yesterday (see Some must see Net neutrality videos) which pointed to both and, George wrote:

Why are we promoting propoganda? Net neutrality is a very complex issue. It is a case of the big telcos against the big internet companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. We don't need one-sided propaganda from

George's question deserves an answer. But first, it's worth noting that George then followed up with his own treatise on how Net neutrality and politics don't mix.  He makes some interesting points that address the fairness of what amounts to bandwidth hogging and how free market forces should be left to correct any bad decisions on behalf of ISPs or inequities.  Says George:

Do we honestly believe that any ISP will make destinations like Google inaccessible?  I would dare say that the first ISP that tries this will be the first to go out of business, before the FCC even has a chance to have a hearing to fine them.

In a perfect world, George would be right when he says that the issues are largely technological instead of political and that politicians and activists should step aside and let the Googles and Yahoos of the world duke it out against the telcos and ISPs that are contemplating some sort of tiered chargeback structure that equates to the premium one pays for overnight delivery of a letter versus two or three-day delivery. But it's not a perfect world.  As much as I agree that politicians shouldn't play a role in matters that they know little about (something that routinely happens in matters of technology) and as much as I agree that that activist organizations like to offer an unbalanced view of the big picture, I also see a process that's already heavily politicized and believe that every Net neutrality-unfriendly political force deserves at the very least an equal and opposite force to oppose it.

As though the political forces at work are more herring than real, George says "we are suppose to believe that it is just the 'evil' telco companies and the 'evil' politicians they paid off opposing Net neutrality against the people." How sad is it when a complicated truth has to be gift-wrapped in iconic terminology like Net neutrality, SPAM, and C.R.A.P. in hopes of getting the masses engaged in a conversation? Not only isn't it a perfect world, the conversation about Net neutrality was both started and politicized before anyone called it Net neutrality. George is right. It's not like the telcos and politicians sat down around a table and agreed that it was time to stomp out Net neutrality.  But, on the other hand, George's herring is closer to the truth than most people realize.

For example, you'd have a very difficult time convincing me that Federal Communications Commission's decision to reclassify DSL Internet service provision as an information service (rather than the telecommunications service it was originally classified as) was a decision it magically came up out of the blue. For the FCC to come up with that idea, someone or some industry had to bring it to the FCC's attention. Who might that someone be? The telcos which happen to have extremely well-financed and active representation in Washington, DC.  As I wrote last August, the Net result (double-entendre intended) of that decision disabled a free market; the same free market that would have efficiently neutralized any attempt by telcos to turn the Internet into a tiered service instead of the dumb pipe it needs to be. Perhaps George didn't realize it, but when he rhetorically asked what part of the Internet the telcos control and what services and Web sites are being filtered, he was very very close to the heart of the matter.

When the FCC reclassified DSL internet service provision as an information service, it practically endorsed a monopoly (or perhaps a duopoly) that the previous classification (as a telecommunications service) was designed to prevent. When DSL internet service provision was originally classified as a telecommunications service, the telcos, which own a majority of the physical infrastructure needed to provision most homes and businesses with internet service, were also forced to make that physical infrastructure available (practically at cost)  to providers like AOL and Earthlink who didn't have the financial means or the government-granted right-of-way ("the pole") to put their own competing  infrastructure in.

By neutralizing government-granted right-of-way as a competitive advantage, the FCC had ensured a free market for Internet service provision. Under those arrangements, if your local telco decided to limit your access to Google, you'd be free to switch to a provider that doesn't.  But when the FCC reclassified Internet service provision as an information service, it released telcos from their obligation to cost effectively give ISPs like AOL and Earthlink access to their government granted right-of-way. With one decision, a largely free market was converted into a government-endorsed duopoly (if you include the cable-based ISPs). And, absent of a free market that allows you to choose from many Internet service providers, the telcos do have the control they need to change the way the Internet works.

You can hardly blame the telcos for wanting it that way.  It's bad enough that their own Internet services were being used by their customers (you) to dismantle their traditional telephony business with applications like Skype. But to have other ISPs enabling the same sort of disruption over the telco "owned" infrastructure adds insult to injury. But, as has happened with past economic transformations, the move to a digital economy (I don't like "information economy") is destroying old business models. In Net neutrality, many may see outfits like and as organizations that are unnecessarily politicizing an issue that shouldn't be politicized. But, the truth is that politics played a role in Net neutrality long before "Net neutrality" ever entered the digerati concsiousness and, like the old saying goes, you have to fight fire with fire.

Topics: Telcos


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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