RealTime IT News

'Net Neutrality' What? Who Knows?

WASHINGTON -- Proponents of net neutrality face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill: explaining the concept.

No matter the merits, net neutrality is a tough sell to lawmakers whose tech knowledge is usually limited to the on/off switch of the BlackBerry. If that.

"We're really not fond of the term 'net neutrality,' but we use it because it's widely recognized. If you have a better term, let us know," one public advocacy group said last week.

We don't. Nor, apparently, does anyone else.

The telephone and cable companies, on the other hand, can explain why net neutrality isn't important: it is a solution in search of a problem. Better yet, their lobbyists love to frame the issue as Big Tech trying to duck fees.

Even more interesting, in their pitches to Congress, Verizon, SBC, Comcast, et al., paint a picture for the Republican majority to understand. Net neutrality, they claim, will cut off the flow of Wall Street money investing in broadband networks.

And, finally, the all purpose, "Who, us? Never."

"On the issue of so-called 'net neutrality,' our industry has stated it will not block, impair or degrade consumer access to the Internet," Walter McCormick of the U.S. Telecom Association told a House panel last week.

"Therefore, we believe that legislation in this area is premature. Any grants of new regulatory authority or statutory ambiguities could chill innovation and investment."

Ditto for the cable industry's Kyle McSlarrow.

"The marketplace is highly competitive, where no real-world problems needing a solution have been identified and the pace of technological development is breathtaking," he told the same panel. "There can be no better circumstances than these to leave regulation to the marketplace rather than the government."

Both statements illustrate the ease of explaining the complaints from Big Tech and consumer and public advocates pushing for net neutrality.

The fact that neither statement is entirely true is particularly galling for those fumbling around trying to explain why net neutrality is important.

At the same hearing where McCormick and McSlarrow so easily made their case, Amazon's Paul Misener gave it his best effort.

"The network operators intend to offer paid prioritization -- essentially a paid 'police escort' in the slow lane -- for broadband Internet content providers," he said. "Their plan is that, as content enters their slow lanes from an Internet or other network access point, the speed with which this content transits their network will be determined, in part, based on whether the content owner paid for prioritization."

Lawmakers' eyes began to glaze over. Misener regrouped.

"Put another way, to prioritize some traffic is to degrade other traffic. It's a zero-sum game at any bottleneck," he said. "This fact is intentionally obscured by network operators who incorrectly claim they will not degrade anyone's content."

Lawmakers began to drift to their respective committee rooms for a bite to eat.

"Neutral prioritization -- for example, network management whereby all live video receives priority above all text files -- would be perfectly acceptable," Misener continued.

"But for an operator to offer priority to the highest bidder, the degradation of service to content providers who can't or don't pay is unfair at best."

Don't even ask about Misener's discourse on "downstream content injection." The House panel certainly didn't.

McCormick and McSlarrow took a combined 89 words to sell their point; Misener struggled home with 146 words that left lawmakers scratching their heads.

A week later, the same panel overwhelmingly rejected a proposal by Democrats calling for broadband providers to operate in a non-discriminatory manner "so that any person can offer or provide content, applications and services through, or over, [broadband networks] with equivalent or better capability than the provider extends to itself or affiliated parties."

Net neutrality is hardly dead, though, despite the actions of the House Commerce Committee.

While the Senate has yet to tip its hand on network neutrality, draft versions are floating around that seem to grasp the concepts the House Commerce members can't or won't embrace.

Even within the House, there appear to be differences. A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee is planning to approach the problem by examining the antitrust implications of the telephone and cable companies controlling broadband access to the majority of most Americans.

But until Big Tech or someone can put a cogent spin on their story, net neutrality is in peril.

Perhaps they should simply say, "It's about bits, not bucks."