Net Neutrality on the rocks

The Net Neutrality debate has been raging ever since Verizon Chief Executive Ivan Seidenberg declared that Google was getting a free ride (take a look at Om Malik’s blog for a follow-up to this post) and that, in future, content providers should be charged extra for using up that much bandwidth.  Of course this ignores the fact that everyone winds up paying for bandwidth at some point and what the telcos are looking for is a double charge (or even a triple charge).

According to, this debate has reached the United States Congress:

Congress is pushing a law that would abandon the Internet’s First Amendment — a principle called Network Neutrality that prevents companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from deciding which Web sites work best for you — based on what site pays them the most. Your local library shouldn’t have to outbid Barnes & Noble for the right to have its Web site open quickly on your computer.

Net Neutrality allows everyone to compete on a level playing field and is the reason that the Internet is a force for economic innovation, civic participation and free speech. If the public doesn’t speak up now, Congress will cave to a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign by telephone and cable companies that want to decide what you do, where you go, and what you watch online.

This isn’t just speculation — we’ve already seen what happens elsewhere when the Internet’s gatekeepers get too much control. Last year, Telus — Canada’s version of AT&T — blocked their Internet customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to workers with whom the company was having a labor dispute. And Madison River, a North Carolina ISP, blocked its customers from using any competing Internet phone service.

While I am tempted to think that what happens in the United States doesn’t really affect me down here in South Africa but the truth is, it does.  If the telcos running the backbones in the United States start filtering Internet traffic based on content type, bandwidth requirements or the fact that the content is critical of them (it could happen!) then surely this will impact on the traffic flowing into South Africa.

Arianna Huffington has weighed in on how to fight these idiotic initiatives to bastardise the Internet.  Her suggestion is quite brilliant actually.  She has suggested that the key is marketing the efforts to keep the Internet neutral in a way that ordinary Americans can understand:

Why are the bad guys so much better at naming things? Especially legislation. Especially bad legislation.

No Child Left Behind. Healthy Forests. Clear Skies. The PATRIOT Act.

They have a special gift for coming up with monikers that are easy to remember and easy to get behind. Sure, they’re deceptive, but they’re also very effective.

The same can’t be said for the utterly befuddling “Net Neutrality” — the critically-important push to ensure that the Internet stays democratic and uncontrolled by the telecom giants that want to become its gatekeepers. (For those not fully up to speed on this vital issue — and that’s most everyone I’ve talked to — check out, and posts by Rep. Ed Markey, Adam Green, Josh Silver, and Matt Stoller). Now, I understand that “Net Neutrality” is a technical term used to describe the separation of content and network operations, but what political genius decided to run with such a clunky name? The marketing mavens behind the Kerry ’04 campaign?

When you first hear “Net Neutrality”, what immediately pops into your head? A tennis match in Switzerland? Basketball players who don’t choose sides? Tuna fishermen who don’t have a position on being dolphin-safe? Absolutely nothing? Bingo!

And that’s the problem.

This Net Neutrality debate is really all about a group of greedy and scared telcos who feel threatened by the massive growth of the Internet, particularly the Web.  My suggestion?  Don’t play into their hands.  A neutral Net is a more effect Net for everyone (except, perhaps, the telcos).  I wonder how long it will be before we see a similar debate here in South Africa?

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