Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Empire Strikes Back: Astroturfing Network Neutrality

Since I rang the bell about the threat posed to network neutrality by the Joe Barton Bill working its way through the House, I've been trading emails with Tim Karr of Free Press, who has been doing really good work on this issue. He alerted me to the industry's new astroturf assault on network neutrality, cynically called The Future... Faster!

Their website reads like a blurb for Milton Friedman's old "Free to Choose" TV series, positioning the telcos as the defenders of our most precious rights. And they make themselves sound like a broad coalition of freedom fighters:

The Future…Faster effort is building a broad coalition of communications and high-tech industry leaders, civic groups and other associations, as well as individual Americans who share our belief that in today's choice-filled communications world, consumers, the economy and American innovation are best served by market-driven competition.
But here's who they actually are, in their own words:
The Future…Faster® effort is organized by the United States Telecom Association.

Members of the USTA include AT&T and Verizon:
A Verizon Communications Inc. executive yesterday accused Google Inc. of freeloading for gaining access to people's homes using a network of lines and cables the phone company spent billions of dollars to build.

The comments by John Thorne, a Verizon senior vice president and deputy general counsel, came as lawmakers prepared to debate legislation that could let phone and cable companies charge Internet firms additional fees for using their high-speed lines.
The owners of the pipes make it sound as if supply is tight, and price discrimination is the answer. But (a) there is still plenty of unused bandwidth out there (which is why prices are falling) and (b) the very idea of price discrimination in an environment where both buyers (that's us) and sellers are both paying to hook up to the Web is, well insane. In a sane world, you might expect those who regulate to question such nonsense. But whaddaya know -- the FCC appears to be in the bag:
(F.C.C. Chairman Kevin) Martin also said he supports the right for network operators to differentiate their networks and prioritize traffic on their networks.

"We need to make sure we have a regulatory environment (in which network operators) can invest in the network and can recoup their costs," he said.
And who is Kevin Martin? A former lobbyist at "Wiley, Rein, and Fielding, 'Rated Top Telecommunications Lobbyists' according to an article on their website. The firm represents the Bells as well as Viacom/CBS, Gannett, Belo, Emmis, Gray Television, and Motorola." Are you begining to get the sense that the fix is in here?

Big Telecom and their congressional and regulatory lapdogs will brand us as hysterical. They will claim they would never "block or degrade" traffic. But if that is true, why did they object to the Markey amendment to Barton's bill, which would have locked that promise into law?

There are very few things I agree with Glenn Reynolds about. Turns out this is one of them. But make no mistake: he doesn't really have a dog in this fight. His viewpoint will continue to be heard, because it generally aligns with those of the owners of the pipes. We, on the other hand, will be reduced to the equivalent of tin cans and string if the Big Telecom pulls this one off.

Anyway, Free Press just launched a new website devoted to this issue. Go there. Take action. And spread the word about this callous attempt to kill our Internet.


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