Earlier this fall the U.S. Department of Justice, for reasons only known to itself and its puppet masters, got involved in the net neutrality debate.
The DOJ filed a brief with the Federal Communications Commission that argued that the FCC “should resist calls to impose net neutrality regulations on broadband providers because such rules could hurt the Internet.”
As many commentators have pointed out, the DOJ opining on net neutrality is bizarre. It is like FEMA commenting on the machinations of the Department of Defense’s catering arrangements.
The whole net neutrality brouhaha has been going on for considerable time, and there’s still precious little agreement of what the term even means. This is pretty much business as usual, because, when you take a complex public-interest topic that concerns money and combine it with Big Comm (that is, the big boys in the communications industry) and Big Politics, it is guaranteed there’ll be enough spin to lift the whole mess into the stratosphere. The spin ensures that whatever we are really talking about is so layered over with political spackle that you can’t even make out its outline.
Let me offer up my simple (and probably simplistic) version of what net neutrality is all about: It is about the comms companies treating everybody’s bits equally rather than favouring the bits of companies that will pay more or favouring their own bits rather than a competitor’s. We (I’m speaking now for all consumers) want the comms companies to provide pipes — big, fat pipes — through which our bits will flow as democratically as possible. There should be no favouritism, no prioritization, no content monitoring and no blocking.
Why should they not want to give you this kind of service? Because it isn’t in their long-term interest. Big Comms hope that as the Internet communications market expands, and particularly as video and other rich media becomes more commonplace, there’s a chance they can get in on the action, and what better way is there than to attach value to transporting bits?
Like my simple explanation, I have equally simplistic answers to the whole mess: First of all, how about breaking up the Big Comms and making the infrastructure shared. Then ensure the fragments overlap so every subscriber has a choice of at least three mini-telcos. We did this before with Ma Bell. Perhaps it is time for an encore.
Or how about this (and here I’m going to risk an onslaught of outraged Republicans … or will it be Democrats? I have no idea what either party stands for any longer): Let’s nationalize the foundations of the comms industry.
Yep, let’s make the public pipe-work independent of commerce — a regulated public utility again as we did with Ma Bell. Then any provider that wants to can buy access to supply services to consumers. You want a “clean” network? Subscribe to the Pat Robertson ISP. Want a really high-speed network service? Perhaps that will be provided by AT&T or by Comcast overlaying their network on the public infrastructure and routing your traffic. There will be solutions for everyone. Maybe we’ll all wind up on the free, high-speed Google network.
It seems that what no one is ‘fessing up to is the blindingly obvious: The only reason that net neutrality is an issue is that in the Internet comms market there’s no real competition for the majority of Americans, most of whom live outside of major metro areas. There are just the big boys and that is effectively the end of the story. Until we get real, vibrant competition in the market there’s no point in talking about net neutrality, because there’s no way you can have such a thing or even agree on what it means. Even if you ask the DOJ.