How to save the Internet: net neutrality (equal access)

January 13, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

This post is yet another entry summarizing proceedings of the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, Tennessee. The conference is sponsored by Free Press.

A panel presented yesterday was entitled “Saving the Internet.” [At his plenary speech, Bill Moyers has suggested an alternate way of designating this issue: “equal access to the Internet.”] At the panel presentation, Tim Wu summarized the concept of net neutrality issue. Tim is a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in telecommunications law and copyright. In 2006, he wrote a book titled Who Controls the Internet.

Wu explain that the Internet is a meritocratic network. It is a place where we don’t need permission to speak. The aim of “net neutrality” is “to protect this no-permission” aspect of the Internet. The electric network of the Internet, itself, is a second form of neutrality. The idea is that any compatible device should be allowed to be connected to the network.

The function of net neutrality is to protect the Internet from incursions by phone companies and cable providers. If they had their way, the Internet will become like cable companies or “like the Chinese Internet,” where the provider tells you how you can use the network.

Wu previously worked with a telecommunications company. He was not proud of this, but admitted that his job was to try to sell ways to discriminate use based on content. Ironically, this is exactly what he is now concerned about. That is why he wrote a seminal paper on this topic of net neutrality, a abstruse-seeming paper that was originally passed around at dialogical conferences.

Net neutrality is not merely academic, however. Cable and phone providers have already tried to implement a variety of restrictions into the use of their networks. For instance, prior to 2002, some telecommunications contracts prohibited WiFi. Others prohibited certain computer game services.

In 2002, Michael Powell of the FCC (who has been vigorously criticized for his failure to prohibit consolidation of corporate ownership of the media) refused to allow telecommunications companies to restrict the way in which the Internet was used. At issue in 2002 was the voice-over IP service, Vonage, which constituted competition to the provider of the Internet service. Based on that decision, consumers had gained a right to nondiscriminatory use of the Internet.

In 2006, AT&T proceeded with its plans to reconstitute itself as it was in 1984. Its plan was to implement two-tier Internet service, a better level and a worse level of service. To get the better level of service, one must pay additional fees. This would have changed the Internet from a permission-less network to one requiring permission.

Wu compared this tactic to a common practice in the 1960s and 70s: back then, phone companies made it illegal to attach phones to the network other than the phone at the phone company rented to you for an exorbitant rate.

According to net neutrality, the provider must treat everything on the Internet the same. A user can use the Internet in any way he or she wants. Every blog should be as reachable as a big site, such as MSNBC.

As AT&T was buying BellSouth, FCC Commissioner Cox forced AT&T (the largest technology company in the world) to agree to net neutrality for two years. AT&T agreed to this, and is merely waiting for the “winds to die down. Wu warned the audience “don’t let the winds died down. Users of the Internet “should be freely able to reach whatever content they want.”

Another speaker at the same presentation was Adam Green of Move-on. Move-on is now one of 800 diverse organizations advocating net neutrality. Green emphasized that, currently, “you don’t need provider permission to reach any site you want.”

Green detail the history of net neutrality. At the beginning of the dispute, a small telecom subcommittee in Congress voted 23 to eight against net neutrality. Based upon an incredible amount of advocacy by the 800 organizations and their members, a larger subcommittee of Congress reversed this original vote and saved the Internet, for now.

For much more information regarding net neutrality, see

Green emphasized that we all need to stay active on this issue to make sure that we are on top of things two years from now when the telecoms come back looking to eviscerate net neutrality again.


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Category: Communication, Economy, Law, Politics, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is a succinct explanation of Net Neutrality, along with the imminent threat by the telecoms. Do consider getting involved by writing to the FCC. It made a huge difference last year.

    Now we have a new Congress, which must start work on any new telecom bill from scratch. The good news is that the new leadership has expressed its support for Net Neutrality. In the House, Rep. Ed Markey — who championed a Net Neutrality bill in 2006 — is the new chairman of the key committee shaping new legislation. In the Senate, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced a bipartisan measure, the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" that would provide meaningful protection for Net Neutrality.

    Call Congress today: Tell your elected representatives to make Net Neutrality the law now.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    According to, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has taken a firm stand in support of net neutrality.

    Huckabee, who has angered fiscal conservatives in the past by raising taxes in Arkansas and opposing some immigration and welfare reform measures, says he believes net neutrality raises issues of economic fairness.

    “The Internet is a highway, and we don’t restrict highways to 18-wheelers,” Huckabee tells GOP blogger Kevin Tracy. “If it’s a car, an SUV, or a truck, you use the same highway.”

    Huckabee’s comments drew a feverish response from Scott Cleland, chairman of, a lobbying group that opposes net neutrality efforts. If Huckabee is really a true conservative, Cleland says, he’ll realize the futility of supporting net neutrality.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    More news on net neutrality:

    As it has outlined in a letter to the FCC (PDF) and numerous times on its company blogs, Google wants the agency to require that any firm that bids for rights to the 700 MHz spectrum promise to: 1) let customers download and use any software on the network; 2) let customers use any device on the network; 3) sell wireless space to any third-party wireless provider at commercial rates; 4) allow the wireless network to interconnect with other Internet service providers.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another example of why we need net neutrality. This story is from the U.K.:

    That's right, no limits: Tiscali's broadband packages "come with a free modem and unlimited time online so you can surf as long as you like, whenever you like," the marketing copy states (my emphasis added). And that's not all! Tiscali's service is "ideal for high bandwidth tasks such as music, video streaming and downloading large files."

    So there you go. In its pitch, the ISP tells you that you can stay online as long as you like, and that its service is best for downloading videos and large files.
    But the CEO says "the Internet was not set up with a view to distributing video," and that if customers really want the promised "unlimited" service, both the media company (the BBC) and the customer have to pay up.

  5. Martin says:

    Let’s suppose that a fictional telecommunications company called Big Tel get a licence to do two things. 1) Charge customers for the level of internet service they want. Paying top whack entitles any packages you send and any packages sent to you to go to the front of the queue. 2) Filter net content so that they can in effect censor the web according to their own tastes. Naturally, being Big Tel they are going to filter their business competitors, but they may also try to appeal to swathes of the population by filtering contentious types of content, say, pornography, gambling, alcohol, smoking or maybe even fundamentalist religious sites.

    Since it is not likely that only one company will be given such a licence, then all clones of Big Tel will be sending their own customers to the front of the queue, and their competitors customers to the back of the queue. But since Big Tel can only do this to packets going through their own servers, this means that one email on its journey across the web will almost by definition have to be at the front and the back of the queue several times. Since this is true for all emails for all customers don’t we just end up with the same average speed?

    In two (or three) words, yes and no.

    There is a sense in which that will happen, BUT with the licence Big Tel and all its clones made mega-bucks out of giving you the same service you would have got before they had a licence. And there is a sense in which that will not happen because however many levels of service there are, a customer can always get better service by paying more. Which means that mega-rich companies will get super premier service while private individuals will get their emails delivered when there is a break in the corporate traffic.

    Ahhh, you mean net neutrality is not about it being content neutral; it’s about it being money neutral?

    Exactly, you got it. As with everything else in a capitalist society, the bottom line is always about the money.

    So how is content filtering about money?

    Content filtering will work in exactly the same way it does in other media. Some newspapers carry pictures of scantily clad ladies to attract a particular type of reader to their paper. Some papers do not carry such pictures to specifically attract a different type of reader. Big Tel will filter out content from sites they deem not attractive to their target audience, and promote content they think their target audience wants.

    What’s so wrong with that? If I don’t want porn sites to appear in my search results and signing up to Big Tel can achieve that then why not sign up to Big Tel?

    Can a person have a credible opinion about a topic they have never thought about? Obviously not; you have to be exposed to a subject from at least two sides of the fence before you can have a credible opinion about it. Without a credible opinion you do not have a voice in any meaningful debate; your much-vaunted freedom of speech is simply screaming in the wind. [Note: This assumes the topic is one about which an opinion can be valid. Scientific debate can only take place between parties familiar with the science, but there is no requirement for either of them to be familiar with any non-science hanging on the topic’s coat tails.]

    Would you consciously give anyone the right to tell you what you think? Obviously not; you are your own person and you value your freedom of thought, don’t you? Well, believe it or not, when you buy your newspaper you become a statistic in the war between opposing philosophies, a foot soldier in the battle of ideologies, and they use your purchase as proof that you agree with all of their creed. “There are ten million Sun readers and every one of them agrees that …” [insert your own example of a ridiculous thing you do not agree with, even though you have on occasion read the Sun].

    So allowing Big Tel to filter content for you takes away your freedom of thought – because there is no requirement for Big Tel to tell you what they have filtered, so you end up not even knowing that there is a fence to sit on, never mind not knowing on which side of it you want to stand.

    Allowing Big Tel to filter content for you takes away – or at least erodes – your freedom of thought – because they have now enrolled you as one of their ideological soldiers, and you agree with them on this which is why you paid up in the first place, right? Once you have given them the right to think on your behalf, they will not just use that right, but they will surely abuse it, just as Big.Com does with everything else. Since there is no requirement for them to tell you what they have filtered out they could be denying you access to sites promoting the driving of soft-top sports cars, for example. How would you know?

    And don’t forget that access to a site might have nothing to do with the actual content of that site. Big Tel might deny you access to a site simply because it carries advertising for one its competitors.

    Big Tel could even deny you access to your own website, but in that case I guess you would know, wouldn’t you?

    Did you notice the money? You paid Big Tel a fee so that they can give you restricted access to something to which you currently enjoy unlimited access. You paid Big Tel a fee so that they can restrict your freedom of speech, you paid Big Tel a fee so that they can erode your freedom of thought. Does it make any kind of sense for anyone to do that?

    Am I just being paranoid about this?

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    The U.S. Justice Department just came out AGAINST net neutrality. Unbelievable.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    More on the U.S. Justice Department position opposing net neutrality.

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