October 20, 2006

Will Congress Take Sides on Net Neutrality?

Iraq. Terrorism The economy. Health care. North Korea.

Net neutrality?

The last one on the list, a subject that has spawned a growing political debate about how to regulate the internet, may be less familiar than these other issues. But it could prove one of the most contentious.

A fair amount has been written about the politics of net neutrality, but its technical aspects have generally pushed the debate to the fringes of the mainstream press. Here is an attempt at a short definition.

Net neutrality is the idea that those who provide internet service treat the content producers equally. It is the framework, as it exists now, that allows users to access Google, blogs, and everything in between at the same speed, thus leveling the playing field between the largest media companies and ordinary citizens who produce an estimated 60% of the content on the Web.

Until now, content producers like Google and Amazon have been paying only nominal fees to service providers such as Verizon. But many internet service providers—including a number of the cable and telephone companies that account for roughly 90% of the U.S. broadband market—argue that the regulatory statues need to be updated to shift more of the costs of providing internet service to producers.

Mike McCurry, former press secretary for President Clinton and spokesman for the phone and cable companies, uses the analogy of a toll road, playing off the idea of the internet as the “information superhighway.” Since an 18-wheeler pays more at the toll booth than the typical car because it has a greater impact on the condition of the roads, so too should those web sites that generate the most traffic and account for the highest amount of bandwidth.

The FCC, the government agency that regulates the internet, has already ruled that the free market should apply and that phone and cable companies should no longer be required to treat all content providers equally. But so far, the service providers—with an eye on the legislative battle on Capitol Hill—have not made any changes.

The potential loss of net neutrality has galvanized some strange bedfellows to lobby Congress to enact legislation to establish net neutrality as mandatory. This broad coalition includes not only web giants like Google, Amazon and eBay, but also activist groups often at odds with one another, such as MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition.

These groups argue that a loss of net neutrality will end the web as we know it by creating a hierarchy in which the rich get richer.In their scenario, users will be able to download content faster from providers willing to pay the higher toll and more slowly from those unwilling or unable to pay additional fees. That system, they warn, would undermine the traditional, egalitarian spirit of the web in which someone with a modem and computer can compete with the largest media corporations.

When Congress recessed in September, a bill had passed the House that would remove net neutrality from the books while a similar measure generated a tie vote in a Senate subcommittee. Though many supporters believe a possible shift in power toward the Democrats in November could further their cause, net neutrality does have considerable bi-partisan support, according to Craig Aaron, communications director for the non-partisan Free Press.net.

Perhaps what’s most at stake in the debate, net neutrality supporters say, are concerns about the concentration of media ownership. As research from our 2006 Annual Report illustrates, there is a heavy concentration of ownership in online media with 80% of the 20 most popular online news sites owned by a corporation that is among the 100 largest media companies. Advocates worry that without net neutrality, the voice of the small content provider could be further marginalized.