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Pub date May 9, 2006

Let’s get neutral

› openist@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION There’s been a lot of hysteria on the Internet lately over something called "network neutrality," and you can blame it partly on AT&T chair Edward E. Whitacre Jr. Whitacre, whose company’s recent merger with SBC Communications makes it one of the biggest owners of telecommunications cables in the country, got all huffy late last year about sharing AT&T’s precious wires with any old Internet service provider who felt like sending packets. "For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” he told a Business Week reporter in one of those classic "will somebody please tell our chair to shut up" moments.

However crudely put, Whitacre gave voice to a sentiment that’s becoming common among execs of companies like AT&T, Comcast, BellSouth, and others that provide the actual physical wires (often called "pipes") that bring us the shiny Web. Because companies like Google take up a lot of space on AT&T’s wires, AT&T wants to get paid extra to handle that. Think how much more cash it could be making if Google paid for the privilege of offering faster searches over AT&T. That’s exactly the way Whitacre and his ilk see it.

The problem with this moneymaking idea is that the architects of the Internet and industry regulators at the FCC are enamored of something they call the network neutrality principle. Although never written into US law, this principle holds that nobody’s Internet traffic should be privileged over anybody else’s to do so would be like letting an electricity company cut a deal with GE so that only GE appliances got good current. As it turns out, the neutral network provides an excellent platform for business models that cluster at the ends of the wires: Everything from Google and eBay to ISPs and music-downloading companies are based on the idea that money is made by shooting good stuff over the wires, not by making some wires better at getting good stuff.

Underlying network neutrality is the idea that people should be allowed to attach whatever they like to the ends of the Internet’s wires and they should be able to do it without significant hindrances, like paying steep access fees to AT&T to get their businesses online. Neutrality is why we routinely get cool new "end" innovations like virtual reality world Second Life or smart phones that connect to the Internet. As both Internet protocol inventor Vint Cerf and former FCC chair Michael Powell have argued, these kinds of new worlds and widgets are only possible because the wires are neutral and their ends are open.

What would a world without network neutrality be like? The worst possibility is that companies like AT&T would create "prejudiced pipes" that push paying customers’ traffic along more quickly than nonpaying customers’. If indie bookstore Powell’s wasn’t able to pay AT&T’s fees, its online store might load far more slowly than Amazon’s if it even loaded at all. Some companies might force music and movie companies to pay extra to make their downloads work, thus preventing anyone but the major labels and studios from making their wares available online. Ultimately, consumers would have less choice online, and small "end" start-ups would be at a great disadvantage when they put their stuff online. If established players like the New York Times can pay the prejudiced-pipe owners for quicker load times, who will bother to read slow-moving blogs?

Many fear that this scenario may come to pass rather soon, because Congress is in the yearlong process of trying to replace the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with an updated legislation package. Several potential drafts have included language that would enshrine the principles of network neutrality in law. Proponents of this move, whom superwonk law professor Timothy Wu has dubbed "openists," say that mandating network neutrality will lead to greater innovation and consumer choice. Meanwhile, deregulationists like the AT&Ts of the world are pushing Congress to keep neutrality out of the law so they can build prejudiced pipes and start charging Google to use ’em.

If the deregulationists succeed, power over the Internet will be centralized among the companies that own the wires, and everyone but the big corporations will lose. We may be about to witness the end of the ends. SFBG

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who prefers to stay neutral.