Monday, August 07, 2006

Congress and the Internet...

From :

Hands On The Internet
Art Brodsky
August 07, 2006

Art Brodsky is communications director for Public Knowledge, a public interest group working at the intersection of information and technology policy.

Congress has left town for the rest of August, thankfully having done nothing to hinder the freedom of the Internet. They have done nothing to help, either. So as they do their town meetings and fundraisers, legislators—particularly those who take an active part in telecommunications—should take some time for inner reflection on how their perceptions of themselves diverge from reality.

I’ll go farther. The time has come to establish an IRA chapter on Capitol Hill.

This has nothing to do with the Irish, with retirement, with an army or an account. Rather, the Internet Regulators Anonymous organization will help legislators confront the tragic state of denial that afflicts many when the subject of telecommunications legislation is raised.

These poor members of Congress have said a thousand times in public that they have no desire to regulate the Internet. Yet, for each time they say it, they then go ahead and do it. It’s time for them to admit the truth. Regulating the Internet is a power unlike just about anything they else they can do. But we get ahead of ourselves.

There are many examples of the particular syndrome from which to choose. The most recent came during consideration of telecommunications legislation in the House of Representatives. During the debate, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, said, “We don’t need anybody to be the first Secretary of the Internet.”

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said, “Mr. Chairman, this is not the time to start regulating the Internet,” while Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., said, “It seems like imposing regulations on the Internet is a case of Big Brother being a big pain in the behind.”

In an article in The Hill newspaper, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, wrote , “Today there is a push on Capitol Hill to have government take a bigger role in the Internet’s basic functioning. That ought to concern us all.”

This isn’t a purely partisan issue, as Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, showed : “Mayors, regulators, and members of Congress simply do not know in advance how all of the revolutionary changes in telecommunications will turn out. For us to attempt to do so, whether under the guise of net neutrality or any other slogan, is both foolish and dangerous.”

All of those quotes came from a debate in the House in which the main topic was the so-called “net neutrality” issue—a terrible name except for its alliterative qualities. In short, it means that those who control the networks can’t discriminate in providing content.

It is time for the delusion to end, and it can happen in one of two ways. The first, and easiest, is to continue the denial. We don’t regulate the Internet, you tell yourselves. We regulate behaviors, like gambling. If that’s the case, however, then you have no basis to use the same argument when you decline to look at the net neutrality question. In this instance you aren’t regulating “the Internet.” You are regulating the behavior of telephone and cable companies that want to control the content online, and which have a history of anticompetitive behavior.
The other option, and the most difficult, is to admit the truth—to admit you do regulate. You regulate based on the social objective. That’s OK, but you should admit it. You regulate certain participants in the Internet ecosystem. That’s OK, but look reality in the face.

After all, the House recently passed legislation that orders the Federal Communications Commission to take four months to define what is a “social networking website” and what is a “chat room” for the purposes of administering a bill that would cut off Internet service discounts to schools and libraries. Your goal is noble, even if the details of the bill fall short, because not every school receives the “E-rate” funds. Face your demon and take responsibility. Ordering the FCC to define what is, clearly, regulation.

To protect children, President Bush on July 27 signed into law legislation that makes it illegal “to knowingly embed words or digital images into the source code of a website with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity.” This is the government getting into source code. The House also recently passed legislation cracking down on Internet gambling .

The list could go on. This is not to say that the goals of Internet regulation aren’t worthy, because in many cases they are. We want to protect a child from being approached by a predator online. We want to protect a college student from ruining his life by gambling online.
In fact, there appears to be only one instance in which Congress doesn’t think Internet regulation is a good idea—protecting competition and preventing discrimination.

And so the final questions are, “Why don’t we want to protect an environment that produces Googles and Yahoos for the next Google and Yahoo!?” Why don’t want to listen to the more than one million people who have signed a petition in favor of net neutrality?

If the answer is because our legislators don't want to believe they regulate the Internet, then our IRA chapter meetings will help them overcome that anxiety by showing that Congress regulates the Internet all the time. It’s fine to admit it. Now you have to dismiss your denials and reckon with reality.

But, if the answer is Congress won’t pass net neutrality because the telephone and cable companies don’t want to maintain the Internet as the traditional neutral ground for content that it has always been, well, that’s different. No amount of meetings can solve that one.


No comments: