There's a move afoot to kill the Internet As We Know It, and Sen. John Ensign is in it all the way up to his glorious silver coiffure.
Broadband providers -- the big telecommunications companies who are among Ensign's leading campaign contributors -- want to set up a two-tier system in the course of establishing another way to gouge the public for more money. As the New York Times put it in an editorial Tuesday, phone and cable companies want to change the rules "so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access, and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like."
A House committee last week defeated an amendment that would guarantee net neutrality by stopping the corporations from establishing a tiered system. So now the sponsor of that failed amendment, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. has introduced stand-alone legislation to protect the aforementioned little guys.
Yes, the first and sane impulse is to be against any legislation that has anything to do with the Internet at all -- leave it alone, ferchrissake.
Unfortunately, however, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Supreme Court have not been leaving it alone. Instead, they've been chipping away at the nation's "common carrier" provisions in telecommunications law, provisions that hail back to 1934 -- and that survived the massive telecom bill of 1996. Section 202 of the 1996 act says:
It shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device, or to make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.
So, the law already protects "net neutrality,"right? Well, it would, except in 2002, at the behest of Big Cable, the FCC ruled that cable modem service is not a telecommunications service, but an information service, and as such is not subject to common carrier rules. The Supreme Court upheld the FCC's decision in 2005, whereupon the FCC immediately extended the decision to DSL service, allowing phone company broadband providers to also circumvent the decades-old common carrier principles. (Thanks to the folks at FreePress.net for the history lesson).
The fate of Markey's bill in the House is uncertain at best -- although his unsuccessful amendment to protect net neutrality won far more support in the committee than had been expected. And the big telecoms are clearly frightened that the public is awakening to net neutrality, an awakening which in turn could scare Congress into acting in the public interest for a change.
In the Senate, meantime, Ensign is part of the cabal out to rewrite the 1996 telecom bill to make it more to the liking of the telecom sector that has given so very, very much to Ensign's political warchest (The computer/internet industry, telecom services industry and telephone utilities have combined to contribute more than $375,000 to Ensign's reelection campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis of Ensign's contributions). The legislation that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens introduced Monday (after Ensign spent most of the last year telling everybody that he was going to be the big dog behind a telecom bill) conspicuously neglects net neutrality.
The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on net neutrality in February. Ensign, a committee member, was in full-on telecom puppet mode, emphasizing how important it is "to create more incentives for companies to invest." Added Ensign, eloquence at full dribble:
The idea of net neutrality is going to be one of those sticky issues that we deal with, because everybody here says we should ... and everybody agrees that we want the Internet to be free. And nobody wants anybody to block the access to any website for instance. I mean, everybody can agree on that. But we also have to recognize that there is a balance and that is going to be the critical aspect, is how we strike this balance when we're dealing with net neutrality. If you are a company that is going to be borrowing money from Wall Street, and Wall Street is looking at what kind of return are you going to have on that investment, and we have in law that says that you can not have somewhat control -- not who what websites, things like that -- but for instance if the phone companies are building out their networks and going to fiber...
...But to give the initial incentive for the companies to build that network, this is where the balance is going to have to come in. And we're going to have to pay attention to that because you do deserve a return on your investment ,is the bottom line, If you're going to build out these networks. Otherwise, if we can't give them a return on their investment, Wall Street is not going to loan them the money to do this.
"The companies" already have a means of earning a return on their investment by passing the cost of that investment on to consumers. In the case of the consumer who operates the web page you're looking at now, it's called a cable bill, and it's about $85 a month. If the big telecom corporations can't earn enough of a return on their investment under the near-monopoly market conditions they already enjoy, no amount of telecom-friendly legislation sponsored by Ensign or anybody else is going to help them out, because they must be incompetent.
Ensign's concerns about net neutrality have nothing to do with allowing companies to get a return on investment so they can build a fancy-schmancy techno-infrastructure that will make the world a better place. He's simply shilling for giant corporations so they can reach even further into your pocket (but not in a good way) -- and screw up the Internet in the process.
The Wall Street analysts with whom Ensign is so mightily concerned have concluded that the chances of telecom legislation are pretty slim in an election year. But if we've learned nothing over the last few years, it's that you just can't trust Congress, and you never know when they might slip some lame-ass giant legislation through the door (energy bill, anyone?). So head for the SavetheInternet.com Coalition site and send a letter to your member of Congress -- especially Ensign.