Tuesday, June 13, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

John Edwards' Frightfest on Net Neutrality

A John Edwards supporter forwarded me an e-mail she received from him on net neutrality. Edwards, who when in the Senate was on the Commerce Committee, shows either a lack of understanding of the issue or a willingness to mislead. I'm going to assume it's the former. Here's a sample:

Today, everyone in the world can communicate through the Internet on an equal basis. A small-time programmer like Pierre Omidyar can start an auction site out of his home office and turn it into eBay. A blogger like Josh Marshall can post his opinions on Talking Points Memo and end up attracting more readers than the country's biggest newspapers.

On the Internet, big corporations are on equal footing with everyday people. And it needs to stay that way.

Right now, special interests are pushing bills through Congress that would divide the Internet in two. Corporate deals would determine which web sites would run incredibly fast and which ones would barely run at all. Some users might not be able to access sites operated by regular people.

I don't want Internet service providers to decide which web sites I can look at. And I know you don't either.

A number of things leap out:

1) Edwards says Congress is passing legislation that will divide the Internet in two. Actually, what's going on is that net neutrality supporters are trying to attach to unrelated telecom legislation language that would ban tiering of any sort, but so far have been unsuccessful. No legislation currently moving would enable tiering; that's legal right now, but ISPs aren't doing it because they don't want to tick off customers. So it's Congress' inaction that has net neutrality supporters upset, but seasoned politicos know it's easier to build grassroots support when you say you're trying to stop something. The 463 blog addressed this nicely the other day.

2) No scenario ever presented on tiering would block or degrade bloggers; that service is very low-bandwidth and would always work just fine, even video blogs. And no ISP is crazy enough to block a blog or an individual web site, an action that again would ignite the blogosphere and the media, resulting in a huge PR headache. Brian Ward made some good points along these lines recently.

3) It's a myth that an upstart now can compete on even terms with eBay, or Amazon or Google. These companies spend billions buying direct connections to the Internet fiber backbone and building huge server farms that allow their services to work lightning-quick, so big corporations are not on equal footing with ordinary people. No start-up could possibly build an auction site or a search engine that could compete without building comparable infrastructure, or perhaps buying fast-lane access when such a possibility exists. While the neutrality regulations are only supposed to apply to the network layer (ISPs), there's no reason that a court or regulator couldn't extend that neutrality principle to the applications layer where eBay, Amazon or Google operate, and they could be forced to share their backbone connections and servers, just as net neutrality supporters also want ISPs to share their broadband equipment with competitors through common carrier regulations. As much as I welcome more competition at the application layer, I don't want CLEC-type competition through stealing the property built by those companies, and I don't support doing it to ISPs either.

This is a fund-raising letter by Edwards, who still clearly wants to be president, so his overheated rhetoric shouldn't be any surprise. The person who sent it to me is very bright but not immersed in Internet policy debates. There is a real danger here as this debate goes mainstream that people who aren't wonks on these topics will be misled by empty slogans and irresponsible scare tactics.

posted by Patrick Ross @ 7:10 PM | Net Neutrality