Thinking Tech

Why you should care about net neutrality

Posting in Government

Have a cell phone? If you do, then you hold in your hand one vision of the Internet's possible future. Carriers decide what phone you will use. Carriers decide what features it will have. Carriers decide what sites you will see, and carriers set the price of every transaction.

On the surface the net neutrality debate is about the buying and selling of bits.

It's a commercial dispute, to be decided among elites. It's Inside Baseball, it's Washington bureaucracy, it's something your beautiful mind should not waste its time with.

I wish it were.

But it's about a lot more. It's about the nature of the Internet, and whether this medium will fall under central control or remain a competitive, open market of ideas.

Amazon, Google and Facebook don't agree about much. But they agree regulation is needed to keep the gatekeepers of bits -- Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast -- from using that control to decide what services you will get, what views you will hear, and what interactions you will be allowed on the public Internet.

Think this is all theoretical? Have a cell phone?

If you do, then you hold in your hand one vision of the Internet's possible future. It's a future in which every bit you send or receive carries a price, a price set by the monopolist carrying that bit to you, and where every transaction you engage in, whether commercial or information, demands a cut to the carrier.

It's a future defined by baksheesh. Want to be part of the wireless web? You need permission. And you must pay. Only those who pay for permission are allowed in the app store. There are no blogs in the app store, no start-ups. No more Googles, no Facebooks, no Twitters. Barriers to entry will be defined by carriers, and those who can't leap them will never have been born.

That's today's cellular market. Carriers decide what phone you'll use. Carriers decide what features it will have. Carriers decide what sites you'll see, and carriers set the price of every transaction.

If carriers don't want you bypassing their control in the world of cellular "service" they merely tell phone makers to prohibit it, and it is prohibited.

The monopolists make a lot of money this way. So do the services they endorse, the same audio and video producers who have been so hard done by in the hyper-competitive world of the Internet.

The market is smaller. There are fewer services and fewer bits moving on the wireless web than might be possible without carrier control. But the profits are bigger, because bits that cost nothing to make carry hefty price tags, like those "rollover" minutes in the AT&T ad.

So to protect these profits the carriers have created a false choice. The battle is not between the market and monopoly. It's a question of who controls the goose laying these golden eggs. Will it be the government? Will it be Google? Choices must be made, and just because monopolies are control agents does not mean they're not also products of the market.

But if I don't want Google controlling my choice I can leave. I can go to Yahoo. I can go to Bing. I can go Ask.com.

Only not on my wireless phone. Not really.

And since Moore's Law favors wireless, because wires are strings with limited capacity but the air is an ocean of radio, it is very possible the carriers will win. The firms providing the services you define as the Internet know this, and so they're fighting the carriers in Washington as though their lives depended on it.

Because they do. As do the lives of your children. Will the free and open Internet of the last 15 years, defined by competitive services, become their future or will it be the closed, wireless web of the carriers?

Those are the stakes. Do you care now?

Share this

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure