You may have seen the article in the Dec. 15 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal about certain pro-net neutrality companies and individuals seemingly acting less supportive of the open internet than they previously had.
The article suggests that Google — a longtime advocate for net neutrality — "has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content." Google's Richard Whitt is quoted as saying his company's proposal would not violate net neutrality principles, but the piece doesn’t provide further details as to why not.
Net neutrality is the principle that protects the open internet, meaning everyone can upload and download the lawful content of their choice without interference from Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But companies like AT&T and Comcast want to charge content providers — including musicians, filmmakers, labels and retailers — a fee for the faster delivery of their sites and services. This would put those unwilling or unable to cut a deal with the ISPs in the slow lane. It's pretty easy to imagine what this would mean to an independent musician or label trying to do business on the web.
With a new administration coming in, many net neutrality advocates feel more confident that there will be explicit rules put in place to protect the open internet. Currently, the FCC's "principles" regarding net neutrality are the only thing preventing ISPs from divvying up the internet into fast lanes and slow lanes. Unfortunately, these principles are vague and difficult to enforce, even on a case-by-case basis (which is so far how the FCC has handled allegations of non-neutral activity by the ISPs). President-Elect Obama has stated his support of net neutrality in the past, so it's reasonable to believe he'll follow through on this commitment once in office. Right?
The WSJ article, while not entirely suggesting otherwise, plants a seed or two of doubt in the mind of the reader. The piece points to a "shift" in position by prominent internet scholar (and alleged Obama associate) Lawrence Lessig as proof, claiming Lessig has "has softened his opposition to variable service tiers." Whether this means consumers paying more for faster internet service (not a violation of net neutrality) or ISPs charging content providers a "toll" to get on the speedy pipes (a clear violation) is not elaborated on.
Lessig took the opportunity to publish a rebuttal to the WSJ article on his blog, claiming the article "is an indirect effort to gin up a drama about an alleged shift in Obama's policies about network neutrality." Lessig disagrees with the assessment that he’s "softened" his position regarding NN — he says he's always been supportive of regulation giving all marketplace comers the same "Most Favored Nation" rate as any company that wants to pay for faster connections. Lessig doesn't, however, say what this means for smaller businesses, entrepreneurs and independent artists who depend on a level internet playing field to reach people. Chances are, they wouldn't be able to afford "most favored" status.
We'll be watching this one closely, for sure. Check out our Rock the Net site for more info on what you can do to support net neutrality.
UPDATE: Check out this New York Times editorial about Barack Obama's internet agenda.