Not So Neutral

UNL Professor Marvin Ammori thinks Google violated its “Don’t Be Evil” motto

Mention net neutrality to a web-savvy proponent, and you may be subjected to a lengthy diatribe against censorship and unfair business practices at the hands of telecommunications companies. Mention the term to a congressman who grew up in the age of typewriters and tape decks, and the reaction could be similar to the look you give someone when asked to solve a pre-calculus formula a decade after your last math class. In short, internet neutrality forbids Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from favoring or hindering any content, website or platform. Unless a site is flooded with traffic, it usually takes the same amount of time to pull up CNN.com as it does Lazy-i.com. While the Federal Communications Commission has clear-cut rules in terms of regulating radio, phone communications and television, its ability to regulate the internet is far murkier. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934, included the internet, but it primarily addressed decency standards — not who can control online content. In December, the FCC approved a set of guidelines that prohibited cable and telecommunication companies from blocking or slowing delivery of legal websites to users. However, the new rules would open these businesses to charge for a "tiered plan,” which could allow them to bill users based on their internet usage. The guidelines also exempted wireless companies such as Sprint and Verizon from adhering to these guidelines. As the smartphone market grows, the standards would prohibit wireless providers from outright blocking sites like Facebook and Netflix, but would allow companies to block sites they consider to be direct competition. Internet providers argue they should have the right to run the web much like Qwest or Time Warner runs a cable company: A basic fee gives you basic service. If you want more selections or higher-quality service (high-definition television for cable, faster speeds for internet), providers should be able to charge users a higher rate, form business agreements with other companies, and determine what content should take priority, such as health care-related information. University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Marvin Ammori says a better solution would be to let other companies compete to create technology to expand the internet instead of allowing providers to cut deals with other companies. Ammori teaches internet law and is a founding faculty member of the space and telecommunications law master's program at UNL. He graduated cum laude at Harvard Law School. On a sunny Friday afternoon last fall, Ammori sat down with The Reader at the Lincoln restaurant Bread & Cup to talk about how the internet helped improve democracy. While in college, Ammori started studying media law to see how the internet leveled the democratic playing field for citizens. People no longer had to rely on big media institutions for news — a fundamental change in democracy, Ammori says. "NBC still has more money than me, but I could still get my message out. I could blog and communicate they way I couldn't on TV," he says. Last summer, one of the biggest challenges to net neutrality occurred when Verizon, the largest cell phone provider in the U.S., and Google, the world's largest internet search engine, made a general set of net neutrality recommendations to the FCC. The suggestions still support the concepts of neutrality — computer-based ISPs could not discriminate against any content. However, the recommendations would exempt mobile devices such as smartphones. This comes at a time when more people are starting to access the internet via their phones and not by a standard PC. An article in last year's April issue of InformationWeek stated that 45 million Americans already own a smartphone. The recommendations would also cap any violation of net neutrality at just $2 million. Many companies may be inclined to pay $2 million fine to slow or block competing companies, Ammori says. He imagined a telecom company slowing or blocking Facebook in favor of Google's Orkut social media platform: The result could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for Facebook — making a $2 million fine smart business. "Imagine Google's Buzz getting preference over Twitter. Imagine their [Google's] travel searches getting preference over Expedia," Ammori wrote in an article on the Huffington Post. Ammori played a central role in one of the most high-profile court cases involving net neutrality, serving as head lawyer to the media advocacy group Free Press during their suit against Comcast. Comcast had been singling out users of the file-sharing software BitTorrent by slowing down web traffic, a violation of net neutrality practices. "[Comcast's] argument was they could manage their network however they wanted," Ammori says. The FCC ruled against Comcast initially. But the conservative-leaning D.C. Circuit court ruled in favor of Comcast upon appeal, saying the FCC had limited authority to prevent companies like Comcast from blocking or slowing specific sites. A better solution would have been to propose legislation to give the FCC greater authority to enforce net neutrality, Ammori says. However, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has been "a spineless wimp" when it comes to imposing stronger regulation that would protect net neutrality, Ammori says. "For eight years under the Republican rule, the Democrats said 'we want net neutrality' and now that they're in power, they're weak-kneed and cowardly and have not followed through," he says. The internet guidelines recommended last December have brought forth a new set of lawsuits against the FCC. In January, Verizon filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit court (the same court that ruled in favor of Comcast last year). Verizon is appealing because it believes the FCC does not have the authority to regulate the internet. The court dismissed the suits on Monday because they were filed before the FCC rules were published in the Federal Register — likely to happen in June at the earliest. Verizon plans to appeal that that time. Big Red Reaction Nebraska's congressional representatives have either opposed net neutrality in the past, or have given a tepid endorsement. Jake Thompson, spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, said Nelson supported net neutrality, but was concerned that any action taken by the FCC to enforce neutrality could "stymie the deployment of broadband neutrality." Ammori doesn't buy it. "He's reading from the telecom song sheet," he said. Rep. Lee Terry is perhaps the most influential Nebraska congressman on the issue, serving on the Telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee. In 2006, Terry voted against a bill that would have given the FCC the authority to enforce net neutrality. Last year, according to opensecrets.org, Terry received $3,000 in campaign donations from Google and $7,750 from Verizon. The Reader tried repeatedly to contact Terry through communications director Charles Isom, but an interview request was never granted. Isom did send a press release detailing Terry's stance on internet neutrality. “The internet is a vibrant, open and growing part of our economy because it has been free of the federal government’s intervention. The FCC has failed to justify these rules, which threaten to slow our economy and create more uncertainty for internet providers and users alike,” Terry stated in the release. Strange Bedfellows If there is one bright spot to the net neutrality debate, it's that the issue has united several organizations who have routinely worked against one another. Moveon.org, The Christian Coalition and web giants Yahoo and Amazon have all voiced support for net neutrality. Opponents of net neutrality include conservative think tank the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform. In 2007, the presidents of both the Christian Coalition and pro-choice organization National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws wrote a joint opinion colun in the Washington Post after Verizon blocked NARL from sending out mass text messages that were in favor of abortion rights. The concept of the internet morphing into a tiered system or a place where telecoms can block access to sites seems like almost too big of a concept to undertake, considering the tens of millions of companies that rely on the web, and additional tens of millions of web sites that produce questionable content, be it hardcore pornography or extremist hate speech. A lax policy on internet policy could allow telecoms to start selling services that would allow for faster access to the internet for a fee at the expense of an open internet, Ammori said. "The Internet would become less and less desirable to use," he said.

posted at 05:25 pm
on Thursday, April 07th, 2011

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