Clarification appended Sept. 8, 2010
On a Thursday night in August, some 750 people crammed into a high school auditorium in Minneapolis to discuss the future of the Internet. Most of them went to beseech members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to act to protect Internet neutrality, the premise that all data on the Web should be treated equally. During the three-hour forum, organized by the pro-Net-neutrality coalition Save the Internet, an array of speakers warned that without safeguards in place, corporate behemoths would cut lucrative deals to prioritize some kinds of content and throttle others, turning themselves into the unofficial gatekeepers of the world's best leveling force. Net neutrality, said Senator Al Franken, is "the First Amendment issue of our time."
In the weeks since Google and Verizon published a controversial proposal on the issue, Net neutrality has become the newest front in an ideological war waged by the pricey lobbyists, paid spokesmen, partisan media outlets and Washington ward bosses who feast on fractiousness. Relying on a now familiar playbook, a tableau of conservative interest groups has used the specter of a so-called government takeover of the Internet to mobilize Tea Party organizations. Liberal counterparts warn that corporate bigwigs are trying to cement their control of the Web at your expense. Their sparring has transformed a technical debate about the architecture of the Web into one of the pivotal issues in this fall's midterm elections. "Net neutrality has become a proxy fight for who you hate more big corporations or big government," says Larry Downes, a nonresident fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "It works very nicely for that pointless, unending argument. The antigovernment people say [FCC regulation would be] a takeover of the Internet. Anticorporate people say a deal between Google and Verizon would ruin the Internet. And they're both wrong."
When you boot up your browser, any website you want to visit is allowed to load at the same speed. That's because Internet service providers have so far (with a few exceptions) hewed to the principles of Net neutrality, which prevent them from favoring some kinds of content over others. But as demand for broadband grows and mobile devices like the iPhone and Blackberry become ubiquitous, telecommunications giants like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T who have spent hundreds of billions of dollars laying the pipes through which data travels to your computer are eager to refine their business models. One way they could do this is by ditching flatrate access fees and installing virtual tollbooths that would let customers pay for access to faster speeds or subscription content, much as cable providers ask you to fork over extra for channels like HBO. In a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey, 55% of mobile executives said developing tiered pricing models was the way forward in mature markets.
Advocates also warn that if Net neutrality rules aren't codified, service providers could strike pacts to prioritize certain types of data at the expense of others. For example, Comcast could theoretically agree to accelerate streaming video footage for one network's television programs, putting that channel's competitor at a disadvantage. The Google-Verizon framework opens the door to prioritization on wireless networks and carves out loopholes for traditional, wired connection. For Internet users, the upshot could be higher costs particularly because they will be less insulated by competition as demand for broadband increases, says Susan Crawford, a former White House technology adviser and professor at Cardozo School of Law. The FCC's National Broadband Plan predicts that soon just 15% of the U.S. will be able to choose between top-speed carriers. "This is the arms merchants of the Internet making a deal that furthers their own business interests," Crawford says.
Net-neutrality advocates argue that the best way to keep the Internet free and open is for the FCC to assert its authority to regulate broadband, a process known as reclassification. Last month, a conservative coalition free-market think tanks, antitax and antiregulation interest groups, Tea Party leaders and an array of GOP legislators banded together to stanch the threat of FCC action. On Aug. 11, they sent a letter blasting the FCC for "relentlessly pursuing a massive regulatory regime." The missive, written by Kelly Cobb, government-affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform, argued it could usher in additional taxes for consumers and companies, open the door to price-setting, curb free speech, slow Web-surfing speeds and dampen private investment. "Managing traffic online, which is what Net neutrality would eliminate, is actually a very good thing," he says. "It equalizes everybody's access to the Internet by ensuring the on ramp isn't congested." One of the damning adages about Net neutrality, oft repeated among opponents, is that it is "a solution in search of a problem."