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Don’t Repeat the Mistakes of the Past: Keep the Internet Free

3p Contributor | Friday November 11th, 2011 | 0 Comments

A version of this story originally appeared in the Congress Blog of TheHill.com

By: Matt Bauer
Throughout the late 19th century and for all of the 20th Centuries, most forms of communications and media, from telephony, to radio, movies and TV, all went through the same cycle. Initial experimentation, innovation and when their use began to spread, all were the target of business in an effort to control the medium.  Eventually ownership of these communication mediums became concentrated in one or just a few corporate entities. In all cases, innovation was stifled; smaller business and opportunity shut out, and centralized command established.

This brings us to the internet. Quite possibly nothing in history has had a more far-reaching and permanent impact in such a relatively short amount of time.  Most American have come to expect the net to be open without gatekeepers to block legal content.  Small businesses have come to rely on the internet to reach local, national and international customers.

But with the success of the internet has come the desire of corporate internet service providers to maximize their control over openness in order to increase profits.

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has reported that broadband providers have already started blocking or degrading content and applications without informing users.  The only way to end these violations of the open internet principles of 2005 and maintain the openness of the internet is to allow the FCC’s 2010 regulations to go into effect, something that Republicans in Congress are intent on stopping.

The FCC net-neutrality rules will establish:

“Transparency.  Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services.

No Blocking.  Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful Web sites or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and

No Unreasonable Discrimination. Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.”

But beware, corporate giants and their K Street operatives are at it again.  This time, ironically under the moniker of Internet Freedom.  Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) says she has enough signatures on her resolution (SF Res. 6) of disapproval for it to go to a full Senate vote this week.  The House already passed a resolution (HR 96: Internet Freedom Act) and Hutchinson noted that she is hoping to get a floor this week, ahead of the FCC rules going into effect on November 21.

The line of reasoning by Sen. Hutchinson is that the FCC net neutrality regulations will stifle competition and jobs – the converse could not be more true.  From Silicon Valley, to internet startups nationwide, an innovation/Access Economy is springing up beneath the ashes of greed and system-wide failure that led us to today’s stuck economy.  If we are to innovate our way out of the current morass, the Internet must remain without toll roads & the old-fashioned top down control that seems to be creeping our way via efforts such as Sen. Hutchison.

The truth is that if we want to make sure small businesses across this country can grow with the assistance of broadband, the internet must be open.  We must, as the FCC says, “ensure the internet remains an open platform—one characterized by free markets and free speech—that enables consumer choice, end-user control, competition through low barriers to entry, and freedom to innovate without permission.”

From the perspective of the small, competitive telecom carrier, net neutrality carries great weight.  My company is among a relatively small but entrenched cadre of competitive “common carriers” as licensed by a decades’ old regulatory structure oddly enough borne out of AT&T’s original “legalized” monopoly.  This regulatory structure creates a relatively even playing field for carriers like ours to compete against the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast – a brilliant mix of competition and regulatory structure.  Otherwise, there would just be a handful of choices in the market – even though in practice this is mostly the effective result as a vast majority of consumers and business utilize 4-5 primary carriers for their landline or cellular service.

The absence of net neutrality would suddenly create an uneven playing field in the $500B competitive U.S. telecoms market.  Even though the industry is dominated by an oligopoly of large carriers, there still remains healthy competition, due to the regulations around the common carrier industry. As noted at Cybertelecom.org:  “The concept of “Network Neutrality” is essentially traditional Common Carriage, common carriers of goods, people, and information such as trains, planes, buses, and telephone companies. They cannot discriminate with regard to what they carry or where they carry it. Common carriage embodies the ideal that the efficient movement of goods and information is essential to our economy, our culture, and our nation, and therefore carriers must not discriminate or favor particular content or individuals.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) recently correctly observed that if the resolution to block the FCC net-neutrality regulations passes, it “will stifle innovation and discourage investment in the next Google or Amazon.”  The FCC rules do not regulate the internet, said Senator Kerry, but instead regulate “the behavior of firms owning and operating the gateways to the Internet.”

At the heart of this actual argument uncovers what is mostly likely the motivation to remove all regulations possible. Think that regulations are bad by nature? Look no further than the repeal of Glass-Steagall for proof that, left to its own devices, the giants of industry will torque the system to no end.  Proof positive lies in the collapse and subsequent bail out of the banking industry, which would not have happened if Glass-Steagall were in force, period.   If the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules are overturned by Senator Hutchinson and the lobbyists of Verizon, etc., the knock on effects could be significant as well.   Sen. Kerry aptly commented last week, “It will set the precedent that this Congress is prepared to deny independent regulators their ability to execute the law.  That would put at risk health rules, environmental protections, worker rights and every other public protection that our agencies enforce that some in Congress do not like.”

No one has captured this moment better than Timothy Wu in the closing words of his recent book, The Master Switch, “….our demand for bandwidth – the new black gold – is insatiable.  Let us then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources that we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonable blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.”

Let’s not let history repeat itself – let the FCC’s net neutrality rules stand. Let innovation and competition thrive without the yoke of increased corporate concentration and control.

[Image credit:Nuno Luciano, Flickr]

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Matt Bauer is President and Co-founder, BetterWorld Telecom, co-author and editor of the Nonprofit Guide to Going Green, and is a board member of the American Sustainable Business Council and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.


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