Is Net Neutrality on the line?

All bloggers, writers, media professionals or anyone else using their online presence to do business should keep a close eye on what The New York Times reported yesterday: That Google and Verizon may be close to making a deal whose effects could dash the whole idea of Net Neutrality:

“At issue for consumers is how the companies that provide the pipeline to the Internet will ultimately direct traffic on their system, and how quickly consumers are able to gain access to certain Web content. Consumers could also see continually rising bills for Internet service, much as they have for cable television.”

The concern for content creators, as well as consumers, is that corporate media that already uses branding and professional search engine optimization advantages could push independent sources further on the fringes, marginalizing if not outright silencing a variety of voices on the Web that haven’t existed in old media. Northeastern University communications professor Dan Kennedy, hardly a Chicken Little commentator, calls this “The closing of the Internet:”

“Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.

“Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.”

Google, which has been an advocate for Net Neutrality, says the Times report is wrong; CEO Eric Schmidt, by the way, has been a technology advisor to the Obama Administration, which supports Net Neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission has called off what had been private discussions with Google and Verizon in wake of the revelation of the meetings. Self-described “Google fan boy” Jeff Jarvis has some conflicted thoughts.

Some critics, like tech writer Henry Blodget, claim this isn’t about Net Neutrality but rather the ability of Internet Service Providers to charge what they can for premium traffic:

“Net-neutrality zealots don’t own pipe companies. They haven’t spent billions of dollars building the networks that carry all those bits around.  They HAVE spent (collectively) billions of dollars building the bits that get carried around–so of course they’d like to keep that bit-carrying as cheap as possible.

“In other words, it’s obvious why most of the net neutrality folks are humping for net neutrality: Because it’s in their economic self-interest to do so.  And there’s nothing wrong with humping for your economic self-interest: Everyone in this country does it all day long.”

Ditto for Jeff Eisenach on the conservative Daily Caller, pointing out that private investment has fueled much of the growth of broadband. Much of this issue, in fact, hinges on whether the FCC has the authority to regulate broadband services.

On complicated matters like these I generally defer to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has its own concerns about how the FCC has gone about this piece of business.

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