Net Neutrality Battle Goes to Washington
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.
Net neutrality is about choice. It let's you go on to an Internet site without restriction, and it ensure that a site runs quickly without costing you extra. Now, the net may be neutral no more. NPR's Farai Chideya explores the issue with out tech guru, Mario Armstrong.
FARAI CHIDEYA host:
Now, how does the current system work?
MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:
Currently, it's wide open. If I want to go to Google and type in a search and pull up a plethora of different sites that I can go to, I'm not discriminated against in terms of which sites are revealed to me. And I'm not being challenged with whether or not I paid extra to be able to access sites on a faster connection or a slower connection. So, right now, it's really this open community, which is what the Internet was all designed initially to be, and now, a lot of folks are saying - big telecommunications and major companies like that, the largest telephone and cable companies are really trying to be gatekeepers in deciding which website go fast or slow or which won't load at all, and that could cause competition within the industry. Say if one telecom company owns specific content, they may block out someone else's content.
CHIDEYA: What's the state of play between people who want to keep the net pretty much open to all sorts of different types of content that all load at, you know, pretty much the same time, and people who want to have a fast lane and a slow lane? Who's winning here, if anyone yet?
ARMSTRONG: Yes. Well, you know, the House passed a telecommunications bill. Now, this has pieces of this net neutrality issue in this legislation. And this just passed - it's probably the largest telecommunications legislation in a decade, since 1996 in the Telecommunications Act. And it was recently approved - 321 to 101, I think, was the exact numbers - to allow telephone companies to no enter into this subscription television market. So it looks like the big industry is starting to win, and this isn't over yet. This still has some other hurdles to go through, but a lot of folks are looking at, hey, if there's more openness to allowing big guess companies to compete, shouldn't that end up giving consumers discounts?
So that's kind of the lead that I'm seeing, the overarching trend that's being put out in the media or that many supporters of this type of legislation are saying. But when you peel back the layers, you start to notice. Wait a minute. How are we making sure that we're getting access to what we want to have access to at the rate we want to? And so you have organizations like the ACLU, you have Free Press, you have savetheinternet.org, you have a plethora, a huge amount, of community programs that are really trying to get the awareness out. And, in fact, I think there was an independent musicians that created a song called God Save the Internet just to try to make more awareness about this issue, so people could mobilize their voting folks to really pay attention to the issue and vote in their favor.
CHIDEYA: You know, a couple of years ago, the political left and right joined together to block some plans to allow media companies to really expand their abilities to own newspapers and TV stations in the same market, to own a larger percentage of their broadcast or print market. Do you see this growing into yet another groundswell of public opinion and crossing those kinds of ideological barriers?
ARMSTRONG: Yes, I do. And, you know, this is one of those things where there is really a lot at stake here, Farai. And I just - I really think the average person is not paying attention to these types of issues, but it's ultimately going to impact us in ways that we haven't even really thought of yet. I mean, the decisions that we're looking at now will end up shaping the future of the Internet for a generation - I mean, beyond our time - and so you could really come home and just have everything in one broadband connection.
I mean, let me just digress for a second and give you some quotes that I've peeled back from some of the recent articles. Like one was in The Washington Post. This came from BellSouth, and they're - BellSouth's William Smith told reporters that he would like the Internet to be turned into a pay for performance marketplace where his company would be allowed, for example, to charge Yahoo! for the right to have its site load faster than Google. AT&T also said what they - and he's talking about Google, Vonage, and others - would like to do is use my pipes, his infrastructure, for free. We have to develop this infrastructure in order for people to access this content. We all are becoming more demanding in terms of wanting it on our cell phones, wanting it on our laptops, wanting wireless connectivity everywhere. Someone has to pay to build up that infrastructure, and that's their argument.
But on the flipside, I'm really seeing specifically minority audiences, I think, will be really hurt the most. Because even is this was to pass, and this was to help the country move to a faster rate of broadband adoption, which I should mind folks, we are at tenth, right now; we're behind Iceland and a bunch of other places in terms of our broadband adoption. And so some supporters are saying this will help us get to a faster rate of adoption of broadband technology. If that's the case, I still don't think the underserved neighborhoods will be included in this approach.
So I still think the holy grail of getting minorities and all of us on the equal plane, having an equal tool and equal access, this really, in my eyes, brings, you know, brings that into detriment. It's just one of those things that we really need to just pay attention to and watch closely, because further regulation may be necessary, but right now, the companies don't want it to happen, and I don't know. Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! are all saying we want the assurances of net neutrality, so that the content providers can be clear to provide what they want, but it doesn't look like, right now, that's too favorable.
CHIDEYA: Thanks, Mario.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with NEWS AND NOTES tech contributor Mario Armstrong. Mario also covers technology for Baltimore-area NPR member stations WYPR and WEAA.