By Martin Bosworth
“The hands-off approach hasn’t served consumers well. And the Web is far too important to entrust the free flow of information to the shifting whims of a few big companies. Government must step in and tell them to leave our content alone.”
Sounds like something you’d expect me to say, right? Or maybe Matt Stoller over at OpenLeft. But this memorable turn of phrase doesn’t belong to either of us, but to BusinessWeek’s Stephen Wildstrom, who wrote an editorial yesterday decrying the recent bad decisions of major telecom companies that decided they had the right to control the content their subscribers could access:
“A bit over a year ago, I wrote a column arguing that innovation on the Internet would be best served if the government mostly kept its hands off. I’ve changed my mind. The behavior of the top telecommunications companies, especially Verizon Communications (VZ) and AT&T (T), has convinced me that more government involvement is needed to keep communications free of corporate interference,” wrote Wildstrom. Now, remember, this ain’t Mother Jones or The Nation we’re talking about here, but Business Week. For an avowedly pro-business corporatist magazine like this to even publish such an editorial is a clear sign of how strongly the tide has turned in favor of those who support net neutrality rights. And the best part is that we have the stupidity of big communications companies to thank for it.
Last month, CNet columnist and avowed libertarian Declan McCullagh loudly proclaimed that net neutrality was dead, claiming in part that there were no smoking guns to prove that corporations could and were willing to block content from subscribers. Although AT&T had already been caught censoring Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder from making anti-Bush remarks in a Webcast, this apparently wasn’t enough for the free market uber alles set to accept that the possibility of content favoritism could exist.
But then Verizon Wireless tried to block NARAL from sending text message alerts to supporters. And AT&T instituted new terms of service that enabled them to cancel your subscription if you criticized them. And then Comcast got caught actively interfering with users who shared content via BitTorrent, and shot itself in the foot with its non-denial denials.
The typical response from the libertarian set is that consumers unhappy with a service can take their business elsewhere. In a perfect world, that would be absolutely correct. But in the duopolist incumbency that is America’s modern broadband business, many regions of the country have one choice for Internet service, two at the most. And as a commenter at the Technology Liberation Front memorably puts it, Comcast competitors AT&T and Verizon “are two of the same companies that have been accused of participating in the warrantless wiretapping program. So my choice is a company that throttles my bandwidth without telling me or a couple of companies that hand my data off to the government without telling me. I guess that still qualifies as competition, but it’s not much.”
Exactly. What kind of a playing field is it for consumers when they’re forced to choose between giving their business to a company that actively discriminates against legal usage of the service, and companies that have participated in widespread violation of their rights? Why should we be forced to compromise our ethics for companies that clearly have none?
The answer is that we shouldn’t have to. More robust competition that serves the entire country, and not just rich urban and exurban areas, will go a long way towards giving consumers more options for their communications services. And laws that codify the right of all users to access all content equally, without fear of censorship or interference, will help protect the wonderful space of innovation that the Internet has become.