Mount Indignant has erupted, spewing torrents of molten lava off of Capitol Hill, flowing down in angry, boiling rivers to the doorstep of the nondescript office building housing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Congressional Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives are sending hostile letters to the FCC all in the cause of making sure that AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and the rest can run the Internet the way they want to and to hell with the way the Internet has developed for the past 10 years. That's worth spending millions of lobbying, campaign and ad dollars on, don't you think?
And the FCC hasn't even issued its proposed rules yet -- that doesn't happen until Thursday (Oct. 22), much less taken public comment, nor made a final decision. Surely this is something of which Big Telecom is very, very afraid. The point of all this activity is to cow the FCC into proposing weak and ineffective Net Neutrality rules -- in essence to fix the game before it gets started. That's why there is this unprecedented outpouring of lobbying and letters ahead of time. Start the pressure early. Keep it on late, and the FCC and the White House will cave. That's the Big Telecom strategy.
You can see a sampling of the letters here and here. Those are from Republicans. This one is from Democrats, who show no shame in opposing one of the central points of the Obama platform and who would rather represent the Big Telecom companies than their constituents.
With all the mass hysteria ginned up by AT&T, Verizon, the Communications Workers of America and their lackeys in Congress and around the country, casual observers might be excused for thinking that the FCC had actually done something harmful to those fine organizations and their allies.
Who is more worthy of our elected representatives advocacy? Big telecom companies which want to exercise control over something they never controlled? Or the millions of people who are accustomed to an Internet in which they, not big media, make decisions about how to go about their online lives, whether investing millions of dollars, uploading a video or just listening to music?
So far, it's the first batch. And unfortunately, the misguided members of Congress aren't alone in their campaign to destroy today's Internet. Telecom industry organizations, labor and even some state governors and civil rights groups, are getting in on the act, urging the FCC, when it proposes rules on Thursday, to allow AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to have unlimited power to do what they want to online.
Bullying, Whining and Irrelevance Are Main Tactics
The arguments follow the same pattern as any powerful industry that wants to get its way in Washington. Look at the health care debate. Commit any reform and premiums will go up. Death panels will ensue. Care will be rationed. It's all the same threats and bullying that industry, any industry, does to influence weak-willed legislators or timid regulators.
It's also all the same throwing spaghetti to the wall and seeing what sticks. The indignant representatives of Big Business love to cloud the issue with all sorts of distractions. Instead of sticking to the core issue of how Big Telecom will interfere with someone's personal use of the Internet, they throw in all sorts of irrelevancies. What about Google? What about consumer electronics? How can you contemplate a "major shift" in policy during a recession? Net Neutrality rules will "thwart broadband investment and availability," the House Republican leaders say, parroting the industry talking points. "Burdensome regulations will have a chilling effect on private sector investment, at a time when the U.S. economy can least afford such an impact," GOP senators tell the Commission.
Let's start with the basics. First, it was the change from a non-discriminatory network to the morass we have today that was the radical shift in policy. Those who want a non-discrimination policy are the conservatives, who want to bring back the policy that allowed the Internet to be created and to grow. The concept is ridiculously simple. Those who control the networks shouldn't play favorites. Or, in the vernacular of some Republican legislators, those who control the networks shouldn't "pick winners and losers" through their policies.
The Internet (and the online networks that preceded it) started over the telephone network, back in the days when telephone service was regulated and "unreasonable discrimination" was banned by law. Most of the culture and innovation that we have today come from that era of innovation without permission. The telephone companies had nothing to do with the content. The term of art was that the Internet operated on the "end to end" principle. Most than a technical standard, it was a philosophy that the users at each end of an Internet session controlled what happened. Customers, not carriers, decided where they would go, what they would see, and, later, how fast they would see it. When cable first entered the broadband era, it followed these rules, if for no other reason than the industry didn't know what it had in the ground.
Some good economist could probably calculate the value the neutral Internet has produced. Think of all the jobs of Web developers, and network engineers and artists and marketers and construction workers. Think of the value of untold number of companies, some big, some tiny, some successful, some not. It's truly amazing that Google is the number one target of the telephone and cable companies these days (more about that later). Google was created as a Web company. It's an American success story and yet the telephone companies, which blew their online opportunities several times over, have made it into an enemy of the state -- or at least an enemy of their state.
U.S. 'Middle of the Pack' in Internet
Of course, as use of the Internet grew, so did demand for telecommunications services, and so the telephone and cable companies responded, to varying degrees, by improving their networks, even at a time when their competition was being driven out of business and the big companies were allowed by Federal regulators to consolidate their stranglehold on access to the Internet. Ten years ago, there were 5,000 or so Internet Service Providers. Consumers had choices. Today, a customer is lucky to have two -- a cable or a telephone company. Wireless doesn't count because it doesn't get to broadband speeds and because the telephone companies own most of the wireless customers. Even so, the case for non-discrimination in wireless is as strong as for the wired world.
Some lucky Verizon customers have a fiber service. Most of the country doesn't. That data is unassailable. Consumers have little, if any choice, which means that they have no recourse if their Internet Service Provider messes around with their Internet experience.
This threat not to invest is similarly without merit. Preventing the Big Telecom companies from playing favorites has nothing to do with investment or deployment. They will invest and deploy, or not, as they wish. That's part of the problem.
The fact is that Verizon and AT&T have lived under Net Neutrality-like principles since 2005 when Southwestern Bell first bought the old AT&T and then when the new AT&T bought out BellSouth. The AT&T/BellSouth conditions were the toughest, specifically banning the new entity for two years from prioritizing traffic based on source, ownership or destination of the data traffic. Verizon had to follow the same conditions when it bought MCI. But merger conditions expire, and the FCC's open Internet principles, which don't cover discrimination, aren't as good as permanent rules, which might have discrimination against services enshrined.
The telecom companies have invested since, to varying degrees. It couldn't have been very encouraging for our elected representatives to see that a comprehensive report concluded that "The United States is a middle-of-the-pack performer on most first generation broadband measures."
They similarly couldn't have been gratified to read that the policies we ditched -- like non-discrimination and allowing competitors access to telecom networks that the FCC took away -- helped our international competitors leapfrog us: "Our most surprising and significant finding is that 'open access' policies -- unbundling, bitstream access, collocation requirements, wholesaling, and/or functional separation -- are almost universally understood as having played a core role in the first generation transition to broadband in most of the high performing countries; that they now play a core role in planning for the next generation transition; and that the positive impact of such policies is strongly supported by the evidence of the first generation broadband transition."
The common thread here is that Net Neutrality deals with the Network -- that complicated transmission medium over which consumers have no control and little knowledge. Whatever issues legislators have with Google or any other Web company are irrelevant to this debate. This is about Network Neutrality -- the ability of a big Telecom Provider to render an advantage of one service over another, with consumers having no say in the matter.
Taking Advantage of Disadvantaged Constituents
Perhaps the saddest part of the whole affair to date is the role of groups representing minority populations. For whatever reason -- whether they believe what the Big Telecom companies tell them or not -- many organizations seem to land on policies that hurt their constituencies and fall into ludicrous traps one suspects are not of their making.
An ad scheduled to run in the inside Congressional newspapers, signed by Hispanic and Black groups, uses the language of horror: "Transforming the FCC into the Internet Police would cause big problems. Less Investment. Fewer Jobs. Even less, not more, speech." It raises the 2005-era question of what would happen if someone was blocked from a Web site and concluded that, if a customer were blocked, "the FCC would stop it."
Even for a simple propaganda ad, this one makes no sense at all. How would making sure that Big Telecom doesn't play favorites lead to this parade of horribles? How can there be less speech if Big Telecom is prevented from bestowing advantages? And how could the FCC stop any problems if it didn't have the authority -- to be the "Internet police," to borrow a phrase? No idea. And, by the way, aren't some companies in court challenging the FCC's authority?
What's worse, these are the constituencies that are most hurt by the lack of competition and the lack of good network deployment. These are the businesses most at risk for being on the short end of a non-neutral Internet. So why are the groups taking part? Is FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the African-American woman who is one of the newest appointees, the target of these minority ads? Good questions. No answers yet.
By all means, let the irrelevancies and indignation flow from the highest points. Let Big Telecom be protected from the insult of having to step aside and let consumers and other businesses have control over their Internet experiences. But don't pretend that the irrelevancies and indignation are anything more than shilling. Because in most cases, they aren't.