Monday, June 26, 2006

Neutral Ground in This Internet Battle

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Monday, June 26, 2006

Net neutrality.

Sounds benign, but no two words have stirred more passion this year. The mere mention of the issue is enough to make a wonk explode.

Yet the public advocacy on this important topic has concealed far more than it has illuminated. Commercials on either side of the issue are confusing, opaque or downright deceptive.

More about this obfuscation later. But first, a definition.

Net neutrality, which is shorthand for network neutrality, is one of two possible answers to the following legislative question: Should cable and telephone companies be allowed to charge add-on fees to others for access to their networks?

Under a net-neutral system, the answer would be "no." If net neutrality were to lose, the answer would be "yes."

Currently, AT&T can't ask Google to pay extra for the use of its Internet switches and routers even though Google, the big search-engine Web site, uses much more bandwidth than other, smaller sites.

Such extra fees would continue to be forbidden if net neutrality legislation were to prevail in Congress. On the other hand, if AT&T Inc. and other Internet infrastructure providers defeat net neutrality, tiered pricing will be possible for the first time, and big users of the Internet could be dunned for more than they already pay.

Put another way, if net neutrality passes, the AT&Ts of the world will be forced to pay for all of their equipment upgrades themselves and could not subsidize that effort by imposing premium fees for premium services. If net neutrality fails, they will be able to recoup more of those costs than they can now from the likes of Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other major users of the World Wide Web.

At its heart, then, the battle is commercial -- over who pays how much for improvements to the Internet that we all use and sometimes love.

But that's not what the opposing sides would have you believe. "What is really a commercial fight," said Robert Pepper, senior managing director of Cisco Systems Inc., "has now become extremely emotional."

To hear partisans talk, you'd think that nothing short of the future of the Internet, or the future of cable, or even the future of telecommunications, is at stake. Now, I concede that something more than mere pricing may well be on the line here. After all, consumers will be affected -- one way or the other.

But the exact impact is near impossible to decipher if you read or watch what the opposing lobbies put out to the public -- a situation that I'm sad to say is part of the not-so-great tradition of telecom lobbying.

Start with the name of a group backed by AT&T and BellSouth Corp., among others, that wants to block net neutrality legislation. It's called Hands Off the Internet. I kid you not.

First, let's be clear: There is very little that is "neutral" or "hands off" about any side of this argument. These are friendly-sounding terms that have no real meaning in the context of this battle.

Second, no one can determine who is supporting Hands Off the Internet by looking at its ads alone. To find out, one must dig into its Web site ( ).

Some of the ads it has on display there are the epitome of doublespeak. In a television ad called "Road," a narrator complains about regulating the Web unnecessarily. Then he says: "The big online companies want the next generation of the Internet to be built, but they don't want to pay for it. They want to stick consumers with the bill, and they call their idea net neutrality."

Where to begin?

First, regulators and/or legislators will have to decide one way or the other on this one. Objections about regulating or deregulating are nothing more than an ideological misdirection. Washington is involved, like it or not, no matter what the outcome.

Second, online firms already pay billions of dollars to network operators. The quandary is, should they be assessed more for additional or premium services, such as video streaming?

And third, consumers will pay the freight any way you look at it. That's Economics 101. They will either pay the telephone and cable companies via higher rates, or they will pay the online firms the same way. Since costs are passed through corporations to actual people in competitive markets like this one, consumers will get "stuck with the bill" either way.

This last deception about consumers is compounded in a print ad also paid for by the Hands-Off folks. It claims, "The so-called 'net neutrality' provisions would [take] control away from consumers and [put] government in the role of predicting the future of the Internet." Seems like a stretch to me, and also beside the point.

The other side of the debate is just as slippery. Take the pro-net-neutrality group called It's Our Net. Its funding is provided (according to its Web site, ) by such big online firms as Inc., eBay Inc., Microsoft, Google and Yahoo Inc. And its claims are at times just as vague and misleading as its opponents'.

A print ad It's Our Net purchased says, "The big phone and cable companies convinced the FCC to give them control over the Internet" -- an exaggeration at the very least. It also urges readers to "keep the Internet where it belongs -- in the hands of its consumers." That certainly sounds nice. But in the context of the current squabble, it's empty fluff that is obviously designed to incite rather than inform.

Another group that favors net neutrality,, is backed by hundreds of disparate organizations that range from Civic Action on the political left to the Christian Coalition of America on the right. Earlier this month, and the Christian Coalition, along with the nonpartisan group Free Press, bought an ad in the New York Times that made a claim as inflammatory as it is hard to verify.

"Imagine an Internet operator which didn't like the views of Civic Action or the Christian Coalition," the ad read. "Without Internet freedom, they could legally slow down our sites or block them altogether." Not many experts agree the legislation would permit operators to go that far.

"We've definitely tried to simplify the issue, and maybe there's a little hyperbole that goes along with that," conceded Craig Aaron, spokesman for But his side's disinformation, he said, is less egregious than the stuff that comes from the enemies of net neutrality.

A leader of that camp, Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary who co-chairs Hands Off the Internet, disagreed -- but only about which lobby team is dispensing the worst propaganda. Ads in advocacy have their limits, he acknowledged. "How do you, in a 30-second ad on television, do anything other than say, 'Listen up, folks, this is an important issue?' " he asked. "This is not an issue that lends itself to television advertising; the print ads are a little bit better."

But from the public's perspective, they need to be a lot better to be even close to good enough.