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PDF Panel On Net Neutrality

Net NeutralityGovernmentPoliticsNow that I am back in my world and not dealing with the poor net connection at the CUNY center, let me share some thoughts on the net neutrality panel last evening. They really break down into two buckets – the panel itself, and the incredible rudeness of those participating as the audience.

As I mentioned earlier, the panel was comprised of Tim Karr from Free Press, Steve Effros (a long time cable expert), Chris Wolf from Hands Off The Internet and Susan Crawford from the Cardozo Law School. The panelists were effective in making their arguments, but many of their claims were specious at best. More on that in a moment.

What was more interesting to watch was the audience. While the vast majority of the audience was respectful and paid close attention to the debate, a few (generally well known bloggers on the left) were incredibly disrespectful. The live chat behind the panel was full of insults and rude comments. It was the worst parts of the internet – anonymous flames and rudeness – on display for all to watch. I was embarrassed to be part of the forum if it meant having my name associated with that behavior.

To the content, all I can say is there were some misstatements made by Chris and Steve, but on the whole, they made the better argument. They stuck to facts and the discussion rather than making outlandish claims about things that might happen, maybe, someday, possibly. That seemed to be Tim Karr’s specialty. When challenged to name (outside of the Canadian cases which are irrelevant due to a different legal structure, and the Madison River case) one instance of telcos blocking access to content, he stared at the audience and made not sound.

He chose instead to repeat the already discredited claim that net neutrality has been the law of the land. If 60% of broadband connections are provided by cable; and cable has never had to live by the law that applied to DSL lines; and that law was repealed (essentially) to provide a level playing field; and the cable companies have not, regardless of having no legal prohibition, done any of what the net neutrality proponents claim will happen; how can you make such an outlandish argument with a straight face?

Worse than Karr, however, was Susan Crawford. She has, on her blog, routinely raged against the FCC and giving them more power. She has routinely referred to them in the most vile ways and spoken out against their power to, for instance, enforce their puritanical belief systems about exposing a naked breast to the world.

In the case of Net Neutrality, however, she thinks they’re fine. She says they should have the power to enforce a policy of “no gatekeepers” thereby making the FCC the ultimate gatekeeper. The hypocrisy of this is not apparent to her, and you should have seen her reaction to Steve Effros pointing it out.

“That’s perverse!” she exclaimed. How dare he point out her inconsistencies while the rudest people in the room were calling him a liar and a shill (despite the fact he was not paid to attend).

Granted, Chris and Steve had some verbal gaffes. Steve’s comment that the Government wasn’t involved in the growth of the Internet overlooked the role the government had in seeding the Internet, but he’s right. The net grew for two reasons – the cable companies recognized a business model in selling high speed using low cost equipment (which telcos were reluctant to do because they made more $$ on T-1 Lines) and content providers found uses for the speed cable (and eventually the telcos) was providing.

The government planted the seed, but access providers and content providers grew the plant – not the government.

On the telco side, it’s unfortunate that their allies have to live in the world created by the comments of their bosses. The “free lunch” comment will live forever in infamy with “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” But one comment that is often repeated, that is dead accurate is the reference to “my pipes”.

Like it or not, the Internet is not a public entity. It is not a company for which others provide service and it is not a public good. It is a nebulous arrangement of interconnections between private networks. If the net neutrality guys would like the government to compensate the private companies that have invested hundreds of billions to make it work, and declare those pipes a public good, that’s fine. The tab will be staggering.

That will do wonders for the deficit and guarantee great service. After all, the government does everything really well, right?

If, instead, you want a competitive environment, then you keep what you have. Existing competition has moved us this far, so why not let it continue? Some suggest the answer is because there are only two competitors – cable and telcos. That ignores the possibility that the DBS guys will ever develop the technology to compete. That ignores the possibility that governments will provide wi-fi as a public good, and it ignores the possibility that Google or someone else will provide wi-max to compete with the cable and telco guys?

It also assumes that two competitors is somehow inadequate for real competition. Honestly, I think a football field would get crowded with four teams. It would be amusing to watch for a minute, but I’d be opposed to Congress upending the NFL to include group contests because they felt two competitors in a game was insufficient. Basketball and baseball – ditto. Similarly, I don’t really like tennis with couples. I like the lone warriors doing battle.

Someone will make the argument that there are more than two football and basketball teams, and many individual tennis players. But those are different games, under different circumstances on different weeks. That’s just like business. Cable faces different competition on the programming side. They face competition from satellite and now telcos on video. They face competition for phone service from wireless, VoIP, and the telcos. They face competition for data services from telcos, cities increasingly providing wi-fi, PC by satellite (which admittedly is inferior currently, but that will change shortly), etc.

Competition works. But you have to let it. For Congress to act now, absent an actual threat, would be the height of folly.

(Disclaimer: While I work for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, this post should in no way be construed as an official position of the Association. Thoughts in this space are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the views of my employer.)

Written by Michael Turk