Silicon Insider: Go Net Neutrality

That does it: I am now a full-fledged convert to net neutrality.

We live in a world with so much noise, so many desperate people calling for our attention and action, that we inevitably put up filters and barriers to keep from being overwhelmed.

It would be nice to be committed, one way or another, to all of the important issues we face, but frankly, with the proliferation of news sources from the daily paper, and a handful of TV stations, to thousands of Web sites, bloggers, cable news and satellite radio, I (and probably you, too) just don't have enough time, energy or passion to spread that far around.

Empathy fatigue has become a very real factor in our lives.

And that brings me to net neutrality. I know that, as someone who has made his career writing about technology, that I should have, long ago, taken a side in the debate over a free and open Internet. But the very thought of getting involved, like a lot of disputes over theory, rather than reality, just made me sleepy.

It's not that I didn't understand the debate. I could certainly support the notion that the Web ought to be a wide-open, level field, the online equivalent to open systems, in which all of the world's billions could operate with full freedom. Nice idea, very Jeffersonian, and I had seen too many technologies get locked up by one or more major players (i.e., Microsoft Windows), and get locked down into standardization, long before that technology had reached its full potential.

On the other hand, I try to be a realist and not get suckered into this month's latest Utopian fantasy. I'm always wary of people with an absolutist view of anything — and the notion of a perfectly pure and open Net had a bit of that smell to it.

Besides, I'm a good entrepreneurial capitalist. I not only have no problem with people making a buck, I applaud the very idea. I want everybody to get rich — and if that means that parts of the Web needed to be segmented in some way to protect the intellectual property of its creators … well, maybe that says there's something wrong with the Net neutral model.

OK, so you can see my thinking — and my ambivalence.

And so, I suspect again, like most people when faced with this paradox, I decided to sit back and let events take their course — figuring that one side or the other would show their hand, make their move, tip the scales, and expose the dark side of their position.

Well, that is precisely what has happened with net neutrality over the last few months. The bad guys have emerged.

It began last summer, during an online broadcast of a concert by Pearl Jam. Now, if you don't know the politics of lead singer Eddie Vedder by now, you've probably never even heard of this band.

So, I figure everyone who linked to the concert that day knew Pearl Jam's politics — and were, thus, anything but shocked when Vedder start spouting off against President Bush. Nor would they have been surprised at what the singer said, had they been allowed to hear it. But apparently, it was too much for the tender ears of these aging grunge rock fans — because AT&T cut off the audio during the rant.

AT&T blamed a contractor for the action. But it wasn't long before bloggers (bless 'em) started listing other examples of similar censorship by the giant carrier. AT&T then issued a sweeping apology — which, of course, no sane person really believed.

Strike One.

Next up, Verizon. NARAL, the pro-abortion group, approached Verizon with what it thought was an innovative idea: it wanted to sign up for a 'short code' that would enable its members to use text messaging to get updates on the group's latest activities.

Verizon turned NARAL down. Why? Because, Verizon explained to the L.A. Times, its messaging program was not available to groups with a content or an agenda that "may be seen as controversial, or unsavory to any of our users." Any? So, if I find the endless idiotic text conversations between teenagers to be degrading, obscene and controversial, can I demand that all Verizon text messaging be shut down?

Strike Two.

And now we come to this week's latest carrier censorship scandal. As you may have read, Comcast has now admitted that it has been interfering with the ability of its high-speed Internet subscribers to share files online. Particular targets have included users of BitTorrent, eDonkey and Gnutella (but also some strange ones, such as LotusNotes).

Needless to say, these targets aren't unexpected, as they are well-known sources for copyrighted music, movies and software programs. But, as observers have noted, BitTorrent, for one, is also becoming a major player in the distribution of legal content.

What's particularly galling about the Comcast move is that, unlike AT&T and Verizon, it has tried to hide its actions: AP's Peter Svensson (in a fine piece of reporting) discovered that, when two users would try to exchange files, Verizon would intervene and send a block message to both parties, as if it came from the other computer.

Why? There are several theories, the most popular being that Verizon is trying to keep the most active file sharers from hogging bandwidth (which would ultimately require greater infrastructure investment by Verizon).

Strike Three.

Add to this the shameful behavior by Yahoo and Google in allowing the Chinese government to censor their content — and, thus, allowing themselves to be tools of repression — and it is now patently obvious that the corporate world, and especially those firms assuming the role of common carriers, cannot be trusted with managing the Internet fairly and responsibly.

The pressure to maximize revenues and profits is not being counterbalanced by an equal force for freedom of speech and the protection of human rights. The entire industry is in a deep disequilibrium.

When that happens, either the rule of law, or the rule of the mob has to intervene. What's needed now are congressional hearings and FCC investigations, on the one side, and boycotts on the other. The carriers and big traffic sites had their chance to be responsible and protect the common good. They have failed. And if the choice is between a more lucrative marketplace, and the First Amendment, I'll choose the latter every time.

So, go net neutrality!