Feb 1 2011

Tangling the Net

Leading papers muddle ‘net neutrality’ debate

Photo Credit: FCC/Twitter

Photo Credit: FCC/Twitter

At a time dominated by headlines about the economy and ultra-partisan politics, a critical debate has been kept out of the spotlight—though its consequences could alter American social, political, economic and cultural life for decades.

On December 21, the Federal Communications Commission voted to enact controversial “net neutrality” rules establishing new federal oversight of Internet service providers (ISPs). Net neutrality, the founding anti-discrimination principle of the Internet, asserts all online information should be treated equally by ISPs. As with most telecommunication policy debates, the one surrounding this vote is complicated, with many activists skeptical of the new regulations’ ability to preserve genuine net neutrality (New York Times, 12/21/10). But despite potentially historic ramifications, coverage of the debate in the Washington Post and the New York Times has only clouded the picture.

Telecom policy may be wonky, but that doesn’t excuse the press from its duty to inform the public. On the contrary, the role of media as decoder of esoteric rule-making processes is especially important for highly technical issues. Diligent coverage is doubly vital when dealing with a regulatory entity like the FCC, whose appointed commissioners are insulated from the wrath of voters and often operate under intense industry pressure behind closed doors.

Although the new rules could eventually affect how Americans participate in the economy, politics and culture, a Nexis search for Washington Post and New York Times articles mentioning net neutrality in the months before the vote revealed coverage that was largely kept off the front page and often amounted to little more than brief mentions. When they did tackle it head-on, reporters explaining net neutrality often so distorted the issue as to make it nearly incomprehensible.

In a piece purportedly dedicated to explaining the concept of net neutrality and the impending vote, New York Times business writer Joe Nocera (9/4/10) managed instead to obfuscate with his discussion of “one of the true oddities about the fervor over net neutrality”:

Cable television distributors make decisions all the time about what people can see and how much they have to pay for it. If special sports-only tiers aren’t an example of placing some content over other content, I don’t know what is. Yet because it is merely television, and not the sacred Internet, nobody seems to view this practice as a crime against humanity.

Nocera muddled two points here. First, net neutrality is less about how much customers pay for certain content, and more about the ability of wealthy websites to pay ISPs for superior service, which is a different matter altogether. People generally agree that ISPs should be allowed to charge end users more for faster connections (e.g., dial-up versus high-speed Internet) that enable bandwidth-hungry content like online video. For net neutrality advocates, the ultimate nightmare scenario is a multi-lane Internet where consumers see wealthy corporate sites load quickly while other sites, unable to pay the toll, load at a slower pace. Such tiered service plans, known as paid prioritization, appear to be forbidden under the new FCC order.

Second, Nocera’s analogy suggests there is little reason to regard cable TV transmissions differently than Internet traffic—ignoring the fundamental differences between these two mediums that account for precisely why people care about net neutrality. A key point is that the Internet empowers everyone to broadcast, unlike traditional media that have high barriers to entry, and net neutrality is critical to preserving that more level playing field. This basic distinction is crucial to understanding the net neutrality debate, but viewers can’t always rely on commercial media to learn it.

After obscuring the egalitarian nature of the Internet, Nocera moved on to blur the economic realities of the U.S. broadband market:

Consumers have come to expect an open Internet, and companies will violate net neutrality at their peril. That is just the way the Internet has evolved.

This assertion assumes that most Americans could easily protest discriminatory Internet service by taking their business elsewhere. But as many who’ve been dissatisfied with their Internet service will quickly tell you, this is rarely an option; in reality, few Americans have a choice of more than one or two ISPs, which makes regulation crucial.

Nocera’s article fit a pattern of recent coverage ignoring the direct relationship between ISP consolidation in the U.S. and net neutrality. In the four months leading up to the FCC vote, the problem of limited ISP choice in the U.S. was never directly acknowledged in the New York Times, and only twice in the Washington Post (8/22/10, 10/3/10).

Elsewhere, Post business writer Cecelia Kang (11/12/10) quoted European Internet regulator Neelie Kroes saying Europe was not adopting new net neutrality rules in part because “competition is the open Internet’s best friend.” Unfortunately, Kang failed to note how open access laws have produced far more competitive broadband markets in Europe and thus reduced the need for net neutrality rules. Absent that context, Post readers are ill-equipped to understand why the debate is different in the U.S.

Post business writer Steven Pearlstein (8/13/10) did acknowledge market structure as a factor in Internet regulation, but downplayed its relevance:

Such a policy should start from the premise that some government regulation is necessary because broadband has become vital to nearly every household and business, no less so than electricity and phone service in the past. Unlike those services, which were once considered natural monopolies, broadband has developed into a natural oligopoly, with a handful of large competitors providing enough competition to justify light-touch regulation but not enough to justify no regulation at all.

Pearlstein, who in the same column described net neutrality advocates as “zealots,” “crusaders” and “ayatollahs,” failed to explain that on the local level, most broadband markets are usually monopolies or duopolies (just as there are numerous U.S. electric companies, but most consumers can only choose one). A simple comparison to foreign markets shows that America’s “natural” oligopoly is actually an anomaly. But to find such a comparison, readers would have to turn to specialty tech blogs or foreign sources. In September, the British Economist (9/4/10) explained precisely why Nocera and Pearlstein’s arguments don’t hold water:

It is telling that net neutrality has become far more politically controversial in America than it has elsewhere. This is a reflection of the relative lack of competition in America’s broadband market. In Europe and Japan, “open access” rules require network operators to lease parts of their networks to other firms on a wholesale basis, thus boosting competition. A study comparing broadband markets, published in 2009 by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, found that countries with such rules enjoy faster, cheaper broadband service than America, because the barrier to entry for new entrants is much lower. And if any access provider starts limiting what customers can do, they will defect to another….

America has a small number of powerful network operators, prompting concern that they will abuse their power unless they are compelled, by a net-neutrality law, to treat all traffic equally.

Once described in the broader context of other countries’ vastly more competitive markets, Americans’ “fervor” over net neutrality suddenly makes sense. It would be easy enough for the New York Times or the Washington Post to explain the basic relationship between media market structure and net neutrality—and yet perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that the corporate press isn’t eager to illuminate the perils of skimping on corporate media regulation.