Nothing 'neutral' about Internet dispute

Debating an unknown future, pro- and anti-net neutrality forces battle in efforts to sway Congress

Debating an unknown future, pro- and anti-net neutrality forces battle in efforts to sway Congress

In the "net neutrality" battle between telecoms, service providers, and lobbyists squaring off against Web companies and advocacy groups over the future of the Internet, there is one piece of common ground: road metaphors.

Both sides have embraced roads in their messaging, evoking a digital freeway of the future that is either cluttered or unfettered, using broad, emotionally loaded language.

Adam Green, civic communications director, says that "big companies like AT&T" only have the support of lobbyists. Bill McCloskey, BellSouth director of media relations, says "Many blogs have been spreading so much misinformation."

Like many debates, this one is often framed in the negative. Distilling net neutrality down to its core elements, advocates - such as Web companies and portals - argue that without legislation forbidding telecoms to offer preferred service to content providers for a fee, telecoms will be digital traffic cops on the make, proffering the best lanes to the highest bidders. Net neutrality opponents, favoring little-to-no legislation, say laws would impede development of a future Internet, where additional lanes might be needed. However, Web companies could opt out of helping pay for that build-out.

Like Social Security, both sides admit that this is a debate for the future: The Internet is fine today and will likely be tomorrow. On June 28, members of the Senate Commerce Committee were at loggerheads about whether to include net neutrality language in a telecommunications reform bill. While the stalemate could be interpreted as a defeat for net neutrality, Commerce Committee chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who opposes net neutral provisions and wants the bill to receive an up-or-down vote, likely does not have the 60 votes to prevent a filibuster.

Who is right? The short answer is neither: Both are communicating a future that hasn't happened yet. Thus, both sides are subject to bouts of wild speculation.

"No question, there's been hyperbole, driven by fear," says David Berlind, executive editor at ZDNET. "In both cases, people are racing to the worst-case scenario."

"We're talking about the unknown, so it leads both sides to speculate and paint a picture that suits the argument," says Gunjan Bhow, VP of marketing for broadband-solutions provider ActionTec, a member of the Hands off the Internet consortium.

Both pro-and anti-net neutrality advocates say the end goal is swaying Congress.

"We have to identify who might constitute the 60 [senators needed to block a filibuster] and go after them," says McCloskey. "We have a communications plan to put into place to reach them over the July 4 break."

Net neutrality proponent has sent an e-mail out to all 11 states whose senators have voted against net neutrality, calling on constituents to contact their senators to protest.

MoveOn's Green says the senators are caught between Internet users supporting net neutrality and well-heeled telecoms.

"As more everyday people hear about this issue, the more momentum there is for net neutrality," Green says. "There's been a direct correlation between constituent pressure and what happened in the votes."

Green says that net neutrality proponents have been deluging Congress with phone calls and have made it clear that those who oppose net neutrality "will be punished."

But lost in the initial to and fro is a proposal from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), which released a paper elucidating that lightly tailored legislation should be drafted to ensure the Internet remains neutral, while companies "should be able to experiment with different business models," says David McGuire, director of communications for the CDT.

"This is one of the most important issues to come up in years," McGuire adds. And that's something everyone can agree upon.

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