net.wars: Toll roads

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 19 May 2006

Ever since I read Robert W. McChesney's 1993 book, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy I've been wondering if the Net could go the way radio did. As McChesney tells it, 1920s radio was dominated by non-profits, in part because no one believed anyone could ever be persuaded to advertise on the radio. The Telecommunications Act of 1934 changed radio into a commercial medium instead of the great democratising, educational influence the pioneers expected.

Wendy M Grossman

Gigi Sohn, director of Public Knowledge, said unhappily at CFP, that legislative politics around network neutrality are breaking down into Republican versus Democrat. Even if you're a Republican and favour striking down Representative Ed Markey (D-MA)'s Network Neutrality Bill, it has to be bad news if vital decisions about the Internet's technical architecture are going to wind up a matter of partisan politics. If someone can really make the case that allowing, say, Verizon to charge Vonage extra for quality-of-service or faster data throughput would benefit Internet users, well, fair enough. But no one wins if these decisions boil down to politicians scoring points off each other. I'm sure this was always true in most subjects, but it seems particularly clear in the case of the Internet, whose origins are known and whose creators are still alive and working.

On the other hand, it doesn't help, as Danny Weitzner also said at CFP, that the arguments have become so emotional. TCP/IP creator Vint Cerf (now, like apparently half of everyone else on the planet, at Google), has called the telcos' proposals a desire to create a "toll road" in the middle of the Internet, rhetoric that seems to be propagating rapidly. To Net old-timers, that's fighting talk, like "modem tax". Red rag to bulls. Although it is becoming entertaining: rock musicians for network neutrality! And intriguing to see who is joining Save the Internet's coalition: Gun Owners of America and the Christian Coalition on the same list with the American Library Association and ACLU of Iowa.

The other key factor is that no one trusts the telcos (not that we should. Years ago, when I interviewed John Connolly, about his days at the National Science Foundation, where he signed many of the checks that financed the earliest Internet backbone; he talked about the many meetings he spent trying to get the telcos interested, but to no avail, since they couldn't see any way to make money from it. Now that they can, they want to come in and stomp all over it. Plus, there's the whole Verizon-blocking-everyone's-email as part of its anti-spam effort, and there's Comcast's history of blocking VPNs and other connections. And if that weren't enough there's the contention, voiced among others by Lawrence Lessig, that when the telcos were in charge technology stagnated for decades. Probably if they had their way the most innovative thing we could do even now would be to attach an answering machine to the end of their wire. And I'm old enough to remember a time when the telephone company would confiscate an extension cord if you installed one yourself and they found out about it. Will they be confiscating my Vosky next?

In their paper on the subject, Lessig and Tim Wu from the University of Virginia School of Law argue that what needs attention is not so much fair competition in infrastructure provision but fair competition at the application layer: access providers should not be allowed to favour one application over another, comparing it to the neutrality of the electrical network.

It seems to me that the argument for some kind of legally mandated network neutrality ought to follow logically from the earliest antitrust decisions under the Sherman Act: to ensure fair competition, content providers should not own or be able to control the channel of distribution. That logic required the movie studios to divest themselves of theatre chains and Standard Oil to sell off its gas stations. Unfortunately, convergence makes that nuclear solution difficult. AOL sells online access and is owned by a major publisher that owns cable and satellite channels as well as magazines and movie studios. Comcast is the dominant cable broadband provider, and it provides (a relatively small amount of local) original TV programming. In the case of the telcos, their equivalent of "content" would be voice telephone calls. And if the analogy hadn't already broken down, the telcos' situation would kill it, because it would mean forcing them to choose between their traditional business (selling phone calls, a business whose revenues are vanishing) and their future business (selling the use of fat pipes and value-added services).

What no one is talking about – yet – is the international factor. It seems very unlikely that British or European telcos will be able to make the same kind of demands as AT&T, Qwest, and BellSouth. The only ones in a position to institute differential pricing and make it stick are the incumbents – and they would be heavily stomped on if they tried it. What would the Internet look like if there are "toll roads" in the US but network neutrality (in the best public service tradition of TV/radio broadcasting) everywhere else?

Network neutrality

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).