Net Neutrality: Both Sides are Dead Wrong

Imagine a tug-of-war between dozens of spiders all pulling on different filaments of the same web and you will have a pretty good idea of what is happening with Internet access in the U.S. The Internet has become so pervasive, so vital and so connected to our future that just about every industry, business, agency, profession, association, society, institute and club you can name has a stake in its evolution. In the debate over how or whether Internet access should be regulated, everyone is a special interest group pulling in their own particular direction.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is charged with enforcing order and fairness within the nation’s communication systems, gave an authoritative tug on its thread yesterday by imposing new rules to regulate the gateways to the Internet and the Web. In the process it further riled some spiders, moderately satisfied others and disappointed some who were more or less pulling in the same direction but wanted a bigger yank.

The rules, which are primarily aimed at Internet broadband providers and designed to prevent anticompetitive behavior by the companies that serve as gateways to the Internet, sets requirements for transparency, forbids blocking access to lawful content, applications, services and devices, and prohibits “unreasonable” discrimination. All three rules apply to wired broadband providers. The prohibition against unreasonable discrimination was not applied to wireless access providers.

In general, the spiders are divided into two camps, those who favor regulation and those who oppose it. The disagreement tracks closely with mainstream political and economic ideologies–Democrats lean toward more rules; Republicans favor a hands-off policy. That division was on display in the FCC vote. The two Democrat commissioners “concurred” with the order, but voiced only tepid support because they did not think the rules went far enough. The two GOP commissioners voted nay.

President Obama, who appointed FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, asserted his support of the new rules, saying they “will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech.” He said the FCC’s action will promote “American innovation, economic growth, and job creation.”

Some groups, such as the Information Technology Industry Council came out fully in support of the decision. Others, such as Free Press, Public Knowledge, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Center for Democracy and Technology, were disappointed that the order was not tougher and are worried that it has too many loopholes that access and infrastructure providers can slip through, particularly the wireless carriers. Others, those who basically approved of the FCC’s action, expressed concerns that the rules do not specifically protect underserved, low-income and disenfranchised groups. Still others wanted provisions specific to institutions such as libraries, schools and universities.

Pulling in the opposite direction were free-market advocates and those who oppose any regulations that could potentially dampen innovation and investment. This group of arachnids does not see a looming threat of Internet domination by the broadband and wireless providers and abhors the idea of a governmental agency interfering with what has so far been a wide-open, competitive field governed mostly by economic forces.

Twenty-nine Republican senators signed a letter in mid December that condemned the regulations. “This is an unjustified and unnecessary expansion of government control over private enterprise,” the lawmakers wrote. “We strongly urge you to abandon your decision to impose new restrictions on this important and dynamic segment of our economy.” After the vote, Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called the FCC’s action an “unprecedented power-grab by the unelected members” of the commission.

Many of the anti-regulation advocates in Congress believe the FCC is overstepping its bounds. They have vowed to pass their own legislation to keep the FCC out of the Internet’s business. Even though they avoided the sort of indigestible regulations that they once feared might be coming, the major telecommunications companies are expected to challenge the FCC’s decision in court based on Federal laws that are already on the books.

Ed. Note: What a tangled web. There is something almost comical and certifiably ironic about the Internet access tussle. Here we have the Internet, arguably the most profound manifestation of human interconnection in our species’ history, as the object of a fight that stems from some of our deepest social divisions–even as the new technologies are bringing us together, they are driving us apart.

The irony exists because our perceptions of what the Internet is are based on our perceptions of what we think it should be. And our sense of what we think it should be derives from our feelings about what our democracy and our economy should be. In this instance, as is usually the case, perceptions are far more important than business, regulatory and technical issues.

Because there are as many sides to the debate as there are filaments in the web itself, this particular tug-of-war cannot and will not end with one side prevailing over the other. The pushing and pulling will change the shape of the web, but it will not tear it apart as some warn, or give it over to one group of spiders as others fear. The battle won’t subside until all stakeholders are able to see the Internet in its larger context.

From a Literacy 2.0 perspective, the Internet is not a prized landscape of wires, cables, airwaves, switches, servers, code and services worth conquering, owning and controlling. It’s not a strategic hilltop or a country. Metaphorically speaking, it’s an entire planet. It’s the web of our world. As such it needs to be shared, nurtured and protected, not parsed, hoarded and exploited. Our interdependencies, not our differences, are the source of the Internet’s integrity.

Rather than try to win the unwinnable tug-of-war, the stakeholders need to remove ideology, power-building and short-term self interest from the playing field. They need to see the Web and the Internet that supports it as far more than a collection of communication systems, commercial ventures and raw infrastructure. They need to co-create and co-develop long-term approaches that will contribute to the Net’s robustness and sustainability. Because the Internet is a fundamental system, like our individual nervous systems or circulatory systems, what’s good for the Web is good for people and good for business.

Instead of focusing on their own needs, the stakeholders in the net neutrality scrum must focus on the needs of the Web itself. They must address the whole thing. The whole web of our world.

Photo by Toffehoff

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