The good folks at Public Knowledge are trying to spin Wednesday's defeat of a proposed "network neutrality" amendment to new telecom legislation working its way through Congress as "more encouraging" than it might seem. "Those of us who advocate for an open Internet substantially narrowed the gap between our position and those who side with AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to close off innovation," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president.
For those of you whose brains stop working when you hear the words "network neutality," the issue is this. The big telcos and cable companies want to be able to charge extra for faster delivery of information over the Internet. This would, for old-school Net geeks and Internet-based companies like Google and Amazon, amount to breaking the Net, which has always treated all information that passes through its pipes with the same impartial treatment. For an excellent, thoroughly comprehensive exploration of the issue, read the story written by Salon's own Farhad Manjoo two weeks ago.
Despite Sohn's optimism, the writing appears to be on the wall. AT&T, Verizon and Comcast know how to play the lobbying game, and the struggle over the current legislation appears to be breaking down along party lines, which means, naturally, that the Republican-supported position is likely to win in the long run. And the Republicans are in bed with AT&T et al., under the banner of "deregulation."
Let's step back from the nitty-gritty of this fight and look at the big picture. Nine years ago, I wrote a story for Salon warning that a small group of telecom companies were gobbling up control over access to the Internet. Back then, the company to watch was WorldCom, which has since imploded and ended up getting swallowed by Verizon. But though the names have changed, the bottom line is the same. Deregulation, theoretically, is supposed to breed competition. That's why the original AT&T was broken up into the Baby Bells. But the consolidation of power over the high-speed Internet into the hands of just a few companies is rapidly getting us back to where we started, only worse. Once again, the public is at the mercy of a few giant corporations, except this time they are unconstrained by even the remotest sense of responsibility to the public good.
The U.S. federal government granted a great boon to the world by creating the Internet. To watch its inevitable transformation into private fiefdoms for the likes of the new AT&T and Comcast is a hard, hard thing to feel any kind of "neutrality" about.