Nobody's Neutral on Net Neutrality

''Good... Bad... I'm the guy with the gun.'' With those immortal words, Ash, the anti-hero of director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead film trilogy, expresses a perfect pragmatism, which comes to mind today as I sift through the blizzard of email I've received in the past week on the issue of net neutrality .

For those who have been coding in a cave again, ''net neutrality'' is the rubric hanging over various versions of the notion that all Internet traffic should be treated equally by the broadband providers.

Proponents believe that the egalitarian soul of the Internet is about to be corrupted by corporate avarice. They want U.S. lawmakers to bar broadband companies from charging certain content providers more to guarantee access and service quality. They are trying to stave off the advent of a two-tiered network in which the fast lane is reserved for companies willing to pay the toll.

Writing for the Washington Post (''No Tolls on the Internet,'' June 8, 2006), Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Center for Internet and Society, and Robert W. McChesney, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-founder of the media reform group Free Press, clarified what's at stake for those on this side of the debate:

''Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet's wires cannot discriminate. This is the simple but brilliant 'end-to-end' design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for economic and social good: All of the intelligence and control is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them.''

Opponents say that, although the broadband providers have no intention of implementing ''packet prioritization'' on the public Internet sites, they actually need to offer private Internet-based services that provide faster download speeds for the coming tidal wave of content, including movies and TV.

Tom Giovetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Dallas-based public-policy think tank, offered an anti-neutrality doomsday scenario in the San Jose Mercury News (''Network neutrality? Welcome to the stupid Internet,'' June 9, 2006) set in a converged-media future suddenly stalled by a flood of traffic caused by a Victoria Secret Fashion Show and a new Coldplay release. Then he calms down and goes on to write a fairly cogent summary of the opposition's position:

''As more and more of our lives migrate to the Internet, if we want our TV viewing, phone conversations and other applications to be at least as reliable as they are now, it is critical that networks be allowed to become smarter -- to partition bandwidth and prioritize packets to make sure that different types of content get appropriate handling. The equivalent of HOV lanes (which give priority during heavy traffic) and FedEx delivery (which allows people to pay more for faster and more reliable service) must be permitted on the Internet for it to become what we all want it to be.''

Many voices are being raised in this debate. In an open letter, Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared that ''the Internet as we know it is facing a serious threat,'' and called on Google users to write their representatives.

In an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle (''What if they gagged Gutenberg?'' June 11, 2006) Craig's List founder Craig Newmark drew a connection between the Net and Guttenberg's printing press. ''Imagine if the leaders of 16th century Germany, feeling threatened by the democratizing forces of the printing press, had taken Gutenberg's invention and limited its use to those they politically agreed with,'' Newmark wrote, ''or if Luther had to pay licensing fees for nailing up his 95 Theses on every church door in Germany.''

And a veritable army of bloggers has joined net neutrality backers in their fight against ''congestion charging'' on the Web.

The network-neutrality cause has also created some strange bedfellows, uniting such diverse groups as the Christian Coalition of America and Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and eBay are also among the supporters.

But the loudest voice in this debate belongs to the U.S. Congress, which so far appears to want to leave the net neutrality issue in the hands of market forces. Last week, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment to a controversial telecom bill, which would have imposed strict net neutrality standards on broadband providers. (The bill itself, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act, was approved in April.) As I write this, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is wrestling with the issue, but is reportedly far from a resolution.

Good... Bad... For now at least, Congress has the gun.

BTW: Can anyone explain to me how Ash's line—delivered by the inimitable Bruce Campbell, and easily one of the best ever uttered in a low-budget, B horror movie—was excised from the director's cut? Raimi replaced it with ''I'm not that good.'' I tell ya folks, American culture is going to hell in a wheelbarrow.


About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].