The Web — not democratic, but open

by Mathew on May 29, 2006 · 13 comments

Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has a post in which he questions the somewhat gushing tone of an op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend about net neutrality. Scott says that his problem with the piece is that the great promise of a democratic Web is an illusion.

The problem with the democratic web ideal is that no one really owns their own press — not me, not the rest of the blogosphere, not Yahoo, not Google. Why? Because none of us owns our own internet access.

Since the cable companies and telecom companies own the Internet, he continues, then it can’t really be truly democratic — in the sense of being an instrument of the people — unless Congress explicitly says that Internet access is a public utility. Part of what Scott seems upset about is that fuzzy terms like “net neutrality” don’t really help the discussion, and I can sympathize with him there. It doesn’t help that the telecom industry has cleverly called its counter-campaign “Hands Off The Internet,” so both sides are effectively claiming that they want things left as they are and the other side wants to change them.

As I put it to Scott in a comment, however, I think the telcos are guilty of moving the goalposts, as I have mentioned before. According to a recent book called Broadband Scandal, the telcos got all kinds of favourable deals from the U.S. government a decade or so ago, in part by promising that everyone would soon have a super-fast connection capable of handling phone calls, TV-style programming and so on. Now it seems as though they are asking for the ability to charge more for delivering what should already be here.

In addition, as Craig Newmark of Craigslist mentioned in his recent debate with a telecom lobbyist in the Wall Street Journal, network experts say that there is still a large quantity of “dark” fiber out there (some of which Google is rumoured to have been buying), which would tend to refute the argument that the Internet is somehow getting “full.”

In any case, I would disagree with Scott’s premise: it’s not so much about democracy as it is about open access — and the telecoms are quite used to dealing with such things, since the telephone network was effectively treated as a public good through “common carrier” legislation. All the net neutrality folks are talking about is doing the same thing for the Internet. If that requires treating the Internet like a utility, then so be it.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    “All the net neutrality folks are talking about is doing [common carrier] for the Internet.”

    No, that’s not true. The text of HR 5417, the net neutrality bill passed by the US House Judiiciary Committee last week, prohibits any broadband network provider — at the edge or at the core — from providing voice-grade Quality of Service for a fee. “Common carrier” would simply require any fee for such service to be reasonable and non-discriminatory.

    There has never been such a regulation on the Internet at any time in its history, and this regulation would make the Internet much less “neutral” than it’s ever been.

    Educate yourself, dude.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for the comment, Richard — and for making that point about what the proposed net neutrality bill says. You’ll notice, however, that I never said the legislation stuck to the common-carrier concept. I was trying to give my impression of what many net neutrality proponents have in mind when they talk about the subject, and I think the common-carrier idea comes the closest to expressing that.

    In any case, if you’re talking about legislation that would prevent the telcos from offering preferential treatment for certain services (i.e, their own) at the expense of others, that seems to me to be a fair extension of the “open pipe” common carrier concept.

    As for educating myself, I thought about suggesting that you do the same, since many of the posts on your blog contain grammatical and spelling mistakes, but I thought that would be rude.

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  • http://handsoff.org ghoti06

    Interesting post. I work for a company in the Hands Off coalition so I’m hardly an unbiased observer, but I think it would be a mistake to treat the Internet like a public utility. Unlike the water or electricity board, the telecom industry is actually growing and expanding. Keeping the profit motive is the best way to ensure new things keep happening. Government is best at maintaining, not improving things — and I think we all want more than just simple maintenance of what we have now.

    There really isn’t a crisis, only one cooked up by the big online media companies and their allies in Washington. I say we let things continue on as they are, and then if there are actual moves by anyone to restrict access to the web, okay, THEN we can talk about new laws. Until then, Congress should stay out.

    Also, that “telco lobbyist” who debated Craig Newmark is Mike McCurry, who was Clinton’s second spokesperson and just about the best White House spokesperson in living memory.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, ghoti06 — interesting name.

    I am a big supporter of the profit motive, don’t get me wrong. And maybe you are right that we should leave things alone until there are more obvious signs of a problem. But I have to say that trying to impress me by saying Mike McCurry was the best White House spokesperson in living memory isn’t really helping your argument :-)

  • http://handsoff.org ghoti06

    Thanks, it’s a George Bernard Shaw reference, (google “ghoti” if you don’t know, although I think maybe you do).

    McCurry definitely isn’t the point here, I was just giving him a boost after all the bad press these past few weeks.

    But I guess my main points are clear enough — profit motive drives innovation, and let’s take a wait-and-see before legislating the issue.

    Interesting post, and thanks for the reply!

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    What’s really going on here is that the Big Content companies are afraid the Internet will become more a medium of communication than a means of delivering canned content, and that will eat away at their profits. So they’ve concocted this whole FUD campaign that dishonestly makes Quality of Service enhancements for communications applications a threat to web access.

    The Internet is more than the Web, and beefing up the communications side makes the content less compelling. Instead of whining about the Telcos, Big Content should try to be more interesting.

  • Net Chick

    Google is simply afraid of competition. They are trying to strong-arm the government into doing their will. There is no problem, so no solution is needed at this time. Why now? Why is this such a hot topic all of sudden?

  • internetfree

    Hmmm. Very phuichi indeed, Ghoti :) I read the post you reference here, and noted that this is really a question of whether to charge consumers or charge content providers. We can debate which is the fairest way to distribute costs, while still maintaining profitability for service providers. However, I agree with Ghoti that government should not intervene without sufficient evidence that such intervention is absolutely necessary.

  • SoCal619

    I agree that there is no need for regulation yet and ultimately profit motive is the logical recourse for the time being. Simply, how often does bringing the Government into a situation actually result in a problem being solved? They tend to overIy complicate things and are best at maintaining things (as Ghoti notes). Ultimately, I think they collectively have enough on their plates right now and should leave the internet to regulate itself.

  • sharpsburg

    “…profit motive drives innovation, and let’s take a wait-and-see before legislating the issue.

    This is spot on. Thanks.

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  • http://www.ideacosmo.com/business-list.html Ideass

    Hmmm.. I think the web is open, but in a very messy way. There are tons of information there. But, it is mix with trurh plus a whole lot of crap and false information.

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