Don't let Internet bullies stifle reform

July 27, 2006|By MIKE MCCURRY AND CHRISTOPHER WOLF

WASHINGTON -- Congress is considering legislation to bring greater consumer choice and control to the cable TV industry by reforming our outdated cable franchising system and allowing new competitors into the video marketplace. Although this reform has attracted widespread support on both sides of the aisle, it is being threatened by a theoretical problem invented by a few large companies to cement their position in the market.

This issue is being pushed by Microsoft, Google and other online giants that send massive amounts of data over the Internet, and they call it "network neutrality." This term is a misnomer. It is only neutral if you are a company like Google and want to sell movies streaming over the Internet. If you're a consumer, it means you pay higher prices so companies don't have to.

The "neutral" proposal that companies like Google are touting will ensure that they never have to pay a dime no matter how much bandwidth they use, and consumers who may only use their computers to send e-mail and play Solitaire get to foot the bill. That is not very neutral.

In fact, the president of the Communications Workers of America has a better name for it: "Heavy-handed legislation [to] delay job-creating high-speed network deployment to the home."

You might have heard claims that big phone companies want to ruin the Internet. We suppose it is human nature to worry about the unknown and to worry about the future. You always hear people reminisce about the "good old days." But what if the future were brighter? What if technology brought us innovations and services we have never dreamed existed?

One day soon, consumers will be able to use their Internet connections to make phone calls, surf the Web, watch television or movies, participate in video conference calls and play interactive games, all without a hiccup or glitch. But for consumers to be able to do that - and to do many other things yet to be invented - network providers like phone and cable companies have to invest billions of dollars to build networks necessary for this future.

In fact, those companies intend to invest those billions of dollars, because they are not afraid of the future and they want to make it better.

But companies like Google and eBay - companies that have no network of their own - want today's world set in stone by Congress, cementing their position and making consumers pay more.

As Google's top technology expert, Vint Cerf, declared in Europe recently, "If the legislators ... insist on neutrality, we will be happy. If they do not put it in, we will be less happy, but then we will have to wait and see whether or not there actually is any abuse." He went on to say his company would have legal recourse if there were a problem.

So, a $117 billion company like Google wants legislation that would drive Internet prices higher and stifle innovation, all for a non-existent problem. That's a very high price to pay to make Google "happy."

Mike McCurry and Christopher Wolf are co-chairs of Hands Off the Internet, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of technology, media and nonprofit organizations.

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