The argument that these companies should be able to recoup their significant capital expenditures is not without merit. However, they’re already doing so in many ways by venturing into markets that weren’t available to them until they put down the fiber. Telephone companies are now offering television packages. Cable companies now provide digital cable services and sell On Demand movies. What’s more, consumers already pay to use these companies’ pipes via the monthly bill we receive. Any additional fees charged to a Microsoft or Yahoo will undoubtedly be picked up by the consumer.
But there’s a darker possibility ahead if the cable and telco companies succeed in blocking specific “net neutrality” language in the revised Telecommunications Act. A company could conceivably hamper delivery of content that doesn’t meet its standards of decency, doesn’t share its chairman’s political outlook, or doesn’t originate from a site owned by its network of media sites. Why would Comcast – a company that gleans the majority of its revenues selling cable television service to consumers – want to give those consumers equal access to sites such as YouTube, where a treasure trove of free videos is there for the taking?
One of the most exciting things happening online – the crux of the Web 2.0 movement – is the burgeoning of content created by individuals. Sites such as YouTube, the blog explosion (one in five people in the United States regularly reads a blog, according to Nielsen NetRatings), photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and the nascent podcast community – all got their start or get their content from individuals. The majority of those individuals would probably stop contributing if they had to pay extra to make sure their content would make it to users’ computers.
Unfortunately, these restrictive possibilities have become realities in the past. Vonage, the Internet phone company, found its service blocked by regional telephone companies that didn’t want their customers to discover cheaper alternatives. The service was eventually restored after Vonage complained to the FCC.
If such “packet discrimination” is codified into law, what will be the recourse? And, given our current Congress’s clumsiness with technology issues and tendency to favor big business, do we trust them to write a law that would allow some packet discrimination (a fast lane for companies that opt in) and disallow others (stealth handicapping of competitors’ sites) without making our voices heard? I hope not.
I spoke with an exhausted Larry Lessig a few hours after he testified in front of the Senate Committee on Tuesday. Lessig, the noted Web author and expert, was tired in part because he’d sounded the alarm against this possibility six years ago: in his groundbreaking Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. In it, Lessig warned that when corporate or government interests control the code of the Internet, the Web as we know it will cease to exist.
“The [non-neutral] plan inverts the fundamental end-to-end architecture of the Internet,” he says. “Congress doesn’t have a clue about what they’re doing on this. The only question is whether they’ll have the spine to guarantee net neutrality. I’m not terribly optimistic at this point.”