Net neutrality – what next?

by Josh Breitbart, Civil Defense

From the perspective of the bloggers, wonks, geeks, and activists at the Party for the Future [at the National Conference on Media Reform], the future looks bright.

Senators Snowe and Dorgan recently introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, co-sponsored by Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama. The bill gets a tentative stamp of approval from Harold Feld. (You can read a cogent summary o the bill here.)

This obscures the festering debate over the net neutrality provisions in the AT&T-BellSouth merger. I again point you to Harold Feld’s analysis of the different takes.

Free Press hailed it as “a victory for advocates of Internet freedom, the terms of the deal include strict protections for Network Neutrality and concessions that will lower the cost of Internet access.”

But some commentators pointed out loopholes at the backbone level (the really big wires where AT&T could broker deals with really big bandwidth traffickers, like Google and Microsoft) and in “IPTV,” a term that AT&T could define to mean much more than just television service over the Internet.

Professor Tim Wu for explains these away by saying they’re understandable measures to allow AT&T to manage its network. “Maintaining the proper routing of that traffic is a significant technical challenge that both carriers and router manufacturers struggle with. The existing cooperation necessary to support the backbone work leaves less room for pernicious discrimination, at least for now,” he says.

What his analysis makes clear, interestingly, is that net neutrality is actually a solution in search of a problem, as the telcos argued. “‘Like-treatment’ [the approach codified in the merger agreement] is not a pure ban on bit-discrimination, and the theory behind the ‘like-treatment’ approach merits discussion. It is, on the one hand, meant to preserve a basic parity and meritocracy as between competing Internet application and content providers.”

I’m not saying the problem isn’t real, but it is so vaguely understood that there is apparently a lack of agreement on how best to mitigate or prevent it.

Harold’s analysis is a bit more restrained and a lot more convincing for it. He basically says that getting any network neutrality provision written into law is a major step forward and getting AT&T to actually agree to it is even bigger. It makes it a lot easier to pass a net neutrality bill through Congress, which would trump the merger conditions anyway.

The big question for the net neutrality advocates is, what’s next? Now that the coalition has convinced nearly 1.5 million people to sign a petition for net neutrality, what do they do?

This is why I argued for framing the issue as a fight for an open Internet. It wasn’t simply because I thought that was a more effective way to get people on board with the fight. It was because, as a meme, “open Internet” fits with our values so people advance our cause just by using the term.

Then, when we achieve an immediate goal like net neutrality, it’s clear what we do: keep working towards an open Internet.

So now that the pro-net neutrality crowd is moving into the driver’s seat, they should set their sites on open access, universal access, and what I call digital expansion. But to do that, they’ll have to reframe the issue.

As boring as the term is, net neutrality was easy: Do you want to pay more to access the content of your choice or distribute your own content? Do you want the Internet to be like cable TV? Once someone believes that’s a real possibility, they’re ready to fight to preserve their own power. But once you start addressing the ownership divide and transforming the Internet to work for everyone, you are asking people to give up the power of their privilege.

To accomplish those goals, – if it’s even the right vehicle for this new project – will have to transform the thinking of its current members and it will need to find entirely new constituents, particularly those who are currently excluded from the Internet.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey