Shoptalk: ‘Neutral’ Battlefield

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By: O. Ricardo Pimentel

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled, or so the adage goes. The adage doesn’t anticipate an effective referee.
On the issue of Net neutrality, the little guys — Internet users, in this case — might be forgiven if all they see are giants lining up against one another. Let me suggest that newspapers and broadcasters that have online operations should also be keenly interested. They are standing in the grass.
On the one side are the Internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T, who make money because they own the pipes through which Web content flows (without a whole lot of competition). On the other are the content providers, the Googles and Yahoos of the world, who turn a profit because user access to their content is, at the moment, virtually unfettered. Each makes the case that consumers will suffer if the other guy wins.
In this case, though not in all cases, listen to the would-be referee. That would be the Federal Communications Commission. Or, rather, its chairman, Julius Genachowski, who is proposing to enforce net neutrality by reclassifying ISPs into telecommunications services — though not regulating content or rates.
Net neutrality is the concept that the Web should be free-flowing, unrestricted by the folks who own the pipes. In a ruling earlier this year, a federal court limited the ability for the FCC to ensure this. That ruling left the commission scrambling for alternatives.
The FCC had intervened after Comcast “throttled down” a file-sharing service, BitTorrent.
The FCC argued that it could not discriminate against a single provider by slowing it down in such a fashion — which is to say all sites and providers must be treated neutrally. Comcast won. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the FCC had no such authority under the rules it was using, but left open the door for “reclassification,” which is pretty much what Genachowski trotted out, though he billed it as a third or middle-of-the-road way.
It appears that Genachowski has enough votes on the five-member commission to push this through but I’m anticipating a bitter battle; as the commission acts, in court and to force Congress to react.
What’s at stake for most consumers is simply whether ISPs, by virtue of owning the pipes, are allowed to restrict the information available on the Internet. In other words, will they be able to play favorites with lawful content, creating fast lanes or slow lanes for providers depending on their ability to pay?
And, in this light, what newspaper and broadcast online operations have at stake here becomes instantly obvious. They have a huge stake in keeping content as unfettered as possible. Rightly or wrongly, newspapers in particular are looking at online as their future. The prospect of ISPs able to “throttle down” sites as they desire should be sending up warning flags aplenty.
Of course, the telecoms are saying that they are for an open Internet. That they wouldn’t think of restricting content. But one need only think back on all the promises cable television companies made when they were vying for all those municipal franchises. Be worried about such assurances.
The free market is not deserving of all of the vilification it has been suffering of late — the Great Recession, anyone? — but it simply makes no sense to allow the ISPs unrestricted control over what has evolved into a service as indispensable as what telephone companies and electric utilities have provided.
Comcast is talking a merger with NBC, for instance, which would make the telecom a content provider in addition to owning the pipes. How could such a combined entity be trusted to resist the temptation to favor its own content over others?
Some rules of the road are necessary and the FCC is the most logical entity to enforce these. And I’m confident that rules that allow the ISPs to recoup and attract investment — and still ensure Net neutrality — can be crafted.
I worry here as someone who would find it difficult to do his job without open Web access and, of course, as someone who works for a newspaper.
But I have another worry. I’ve seen many journalists lose their jobs over the last two years. And some have turned to the Web to try to reinvent themselves. Now, imagine if the content of these budding entrepreneurs were suddenly restricted?
Regulation ensuring an open, unfettered Web, please.
O. Ricardo Pimentel is the editorial page editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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