On Wednesday the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill, by a vote of 34-22, which could provide phone and cable companies with “a potentially controlling role in the internet’s future,” according to Advertising Age.
So far the internet has been governed by “network neutrality,” the notion that access to all internet content should be free from meddling from the companies that own the fiber-optic and copper-wire networks that link the world’s computers. Network neutrality, also called the First Amendment of the internet, ensures that all the network provider does is move data. The network provider does not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service, and so you can see your friend’s blog just as easily as a major company’s web site.
But there’s a higher freedom that the network-providing telephone and cable companies observe, that of the unfettered pursuit of profits. And so the companies that control the nation’s telecommunications have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to kill off network neutrality, so they can charge dot-coms extra to make sure their data gets special treatment.
At a Las Vegas trade show last month, AT&T Chairman Edward E. Whitacre Jr. said that his company should be free to charge content providers “different prices for different levels of speed, reliability and security,” and that his company would not block or degrade anyone’s service. But the companies that have already established a presence on the internet could pay to retain that presence and receive preferential treatment, while smaller companies and the rivals of companies linked to the network providers would never have that opportunity.
And all of their principles of freedom, which they use to justify their positions on network neutrality, would surely reverse if they were in a different position. If the content providers, like the top representatives of Google, were in Mr. Whitacre’s place, then they would give the same argument he has, and vice versa. The operative principle is that of profit maximization.
And so on one side there are network-providing corporations, whose purpose is to maximize profit. On the other side there are content-providing corporations, whose purpose is to maximize profit. And then, looking on, or not, are the hundreds of millions of Americans, and billions of people throughout the world, who would be affected by eliminating network neutrality.
It is odd that the content providers, too, have chosen to spend millions on lobbying, in private, rather than put free ads on their home pages to increase public support in favor of network neutrality. One might think that by restricting the issue to lobbying, the content providers were trying to keep the public out of the debate. Or perhaps they don’t think the public cares about the issue.
But they are surely aware of the efforts of SavetheInternet.com, organized by Free Press, a media reform group representing dozens of nonprofits and internet experts. In less than a week Free Press helped generate 250,000 signatures for an online petition calling on Congress to protect the internet and keep network neutrality.
The people, it would seem, support network neutrality. And the content providers know it. But they can’t call on the people for support because they are pursuing the same ends as the network providers. They would also like to remain free to pursue profit. It’s just that when the rules aren’t in their favor, they have to change them. Companies can’t pursue those ends if the people keep getting in the way.
We should not allow the corporations that own internet infrastructure, much of which was created and developed over decades at public expense, to determine the future of the internet. And we should not leave it up to the content providers, either. Although their position agrees with that of most of us, they have only taken that position because it will help their profits. They have done so for their own reasons, not for ours.