With an FCC vote on net neutrality rules looming on Thursday, it would be a shame if partisan politics didn't come into play. But who will stand up to declare regulations barring Internet service providers from picking and choosing favorites "catastrophic?" Ah, thank you Texas Representative Joe Barton, we knew we could count on you.
Rep. Barton has written the chairman of the FCC requesting the vote on net neutrality regulations be delayed, as they could have "potentially catastrophic effects on investment and deployment of broadband services throughout the country." To be fair, he could have a point. At stake is the way telecoms provide Internet service to different entities. Without regulation, companies like AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast can slow or block service to certain Web accounts, favoring sites that they have a financial interest in or slowing the content of competitors (imagine how slow Google and YouTube would be if Microsoft owned the Internet). The argument is a philosophical one: exactly who owns the Internet, anyhow?
In the telcos defense, they've invested vast sums in their broadband networks, and as such they feel they have the right to do with those networks as they please. They claim "bandwidth hogs" and P2P media pirates eat up too much broadband, and they wish to reserve the right to slow those parties' connections so the rest of us can have some bandwidth too. After all, they say, networks can't support unlimited Internet; there's only so much to go around, which is why some providers like Time Warner cable have proposed capping the amount of data that one account can consume in a given month, another practice condemned by neutrality advocates.
Those advocates have some sway—among them are President Barack Obama and his appointed FCC chair Julius Genachowski, who is expected to pass the regulations Thursday. They see net neutrality as necessary for creating a level playing field for businesses on the Web. Everyone has the right to the same Internet, they say, and if telcos are allowed to manipulate their services to favor some and slow connectivity to others, the Web isn't really free. In other words, the people, not the telcos, own the Web.
But regardless of philosophy, Cisco released some fairly damning numbers (for Barton and the telcos) that essentially prove that the media pirates using up all the bandwidth with their illegal downloading don't really exist, at least not in the numbers the telcos would have us believe. In reality, the Internet is simply playing a larger role in our everyday lives, from education to employment to entertainment and gaming. As the Web is further integrated into the household via emerging technologies like the smart grid, Netizens are going to need more and more unfettered access, not data limits and reduced connectivity speeds.
While it's difficult to say who is right and who is wrong in this debate, the way it's playing out is downright fascinating. Barton is clearly siding with the telcos, claiming (somewhat credibly) that net neutrality regulations would slow future investment and build out of broadband—the very nationwide build out championed by President Obama during his campaign. But Obama's broadband policy stands to deliver broadband to many places where it doesn't yet reach, including many of Barton's rural East Texas constituents (see how backwards this is?).
The battle lines in this debate aren't just political either. Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon have all voiced opinions supporting net neutrality and its fundamental power to preserve a competitive marketplace. Google's Richard Whitt and AT&T's Jim Cicconi have even been taking public shots at one another over the issue. Stay tuned to this three-ring circus, it promises to be quite a show.