‘Net neutrality’ future is about authority: Speaking at Philly NetSquared

Politics of the Social Web Philadelphia NetSquared panel on Wed. Nov. 10, 2010, including, from left: Rachel Colyer, Organizing and Communications Manager of the Media and Democracy Coalition; Bryan Mercer of the Media Mobilizing Project; Susan Gasson, Associate Professor of the iSchool at Drexel, and myself, representing Technically Philly. The event was live streamed, from which this screen shot was taken. About 20 people were in attendance at the American Friends Service Center.

Understanding the difference between the theoretical concept’s debate and the more practical policy conversation over authority is key to furthering the conversation on so-called ‘net neutrality.’

That was the central-most, on-going theme of my remarks on a panel that focused on the growing conversation about requiring, among other things, internet service providers to maintain equal access and speed to all portions of the internet.

My remarks came as one-fourth of a panel titled “Political Issues of the Social Web: Nurturing or strangling social web opportunities” and hosted byPhiladelphia NetSquared, a group that, as it describes itself, “gathers together nonprofits and activists, tech leaders and funders, and everyone who’s interested in using technology for social change.” Because its members include many nonprofit leaders, my role with Back on My Feet was noted, but my perspective was much more influenced by my Comcast coverage for Technically Philly.

The panel discussion, held last Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 at the American Friends Service Center at 15th and Cherry streets in Center City Philadelphia, was part of Net Tuesdays, a free monthly event series from Philly NetSquared.

Though a discussion on the ‘Political Issues of the Social Web’ could have any number of directions — including, but certainly not limited to, the federal broadband stimulus initiatives and universal access broadband policy and a very powerful conversation about the meaning the social web has to democracy and revolution — our conversation, with some variation, focused more tightly on the very timely conversation on net neutrality.

The session was introduced as being timely because of the previous week’s midterm elections, and few, if any, of the related issues were said to be as affected by large Republican victories as net neutrality.

The other panelists were:

  • Rachel Colyer, Organizing and Communications Manager of the Media and Democracy Coalition, a Washington-based collaboration of over two dozen local and national organizations committed to amplifying the public’s voice in shaping media and telecommunications policy.
  • Susan Gasson, Associate Professor of the iSchool at Drexel, which works to “unite technology, people, and information to make a fundamental difference in this knowledge society — a society in which citizens collaboratively and freely create and share knowledge and utilize information and technology to promote growth, prosperity, and well-being.”
  • Bryan Mercer of the Media Mobilizing Project, which “exists to build the media and communications infrastructure for a movement to end poverty, led by poor and working people, united across color lines.”
  • Christopher Wink (that’s me) is a co-founder of Technically Philly, a news site that covers technology and innovation for the region, where he covers startups, policy and Comcast’s role on the region.

While my beginning remarks had to be cut for time, I took the question-and-answer portion of the night to bang home what I saw as lacking perspective in the otherwise bright, informative and nuanced remarks from my panel colleagues: simply that policy conversations are mired in debate over authority, not direction.

I sought to have those in attendance leave with at least that knowledge of the divide:

  • The theoretical debate on net neutrality: The battle is largely being summed to this: that government intervention will stifle internet innovation by cramping profitability or that allowing ISPs to run wild will cost the consumer (and rival content providers) more, hurt access and use of the social web. From the perspective of opposition, either it’s the monied interest grabbing a democratic outlet or a naive electorate clutching protectionism.
  • The current debate on authority: The spring appeals favor for Comcast’s limiting bandwidth for a p2p network was an issue of whether the FCC had the right to tell Comcast how it could manage its network. In the end, they were told they couldn’t and that has propelled conversations about defining whose role it would be to enforce, if any, expectations about network management. Critics can say it’s a convenient defense but, to date, Comcast executives, like others, are defending net neutrality in the theoretical debate but want the clear rules on authority that don’t yet exist.

As is always the case, I likely learned more from being on the panel and engaging in the conversation than I shared to the rest. First, though, here are some other points of varying importance I pushed on:

  • The first next step in this conversation is establishing authority on these issues. Much has been made about under which existing policy provisions the FCC should govern over broadband policy: Title I or Title II, the latter of which has been opposed by some in Congress for giving too much power for the FCC.
  • The economics of this is hard. The New York Times had this fascinating piece in December 2008 showing that text messages cost wireless carriers just about nothing, a sum that can easily be rounded down to nothing, even with 2.5 trillion messages. Similarly, debates on the “artificial scarcity” of broadband speed and access that is harder to determine for price gouging range wildly.
  • As has more recently been reported in the news, the European Union is having its own conversations about net neutrality but have now largely settled on existing safeguards are enough to keep ISPs in check.
  • With new leadership in the House and aim to gain political clout over economic gains, I’d expect there to be a few reasons for these net neutrality debates to be quieted some.
  • I’m waiting for a divisive legal fight over an ISP and a content provider coming to talons, meaning
  • Like with all divisive conversations — “ones you wouldn’t bring up at a dinner party,” I said — as the conversation matures, the dual options of ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ splinter into dozens of nuanced options. One such buzzy take of late has been the suggestion from a bunch of big names that there should be a free and open Internet, with some services allowed to be throttled.
  • In another of these nuanced takes, like the one from Google and Verizon, is to look at offering restrictions for different platform, like wireless for hard-wired broadband or mobile or other tools. That can create winners and losers due to different use, like the larger proportion of non-white Americans using smart phones to access the internet rather than browsers and computers.
  • As another final takeway, I suggested that audience members think about the interesting divide Philadelphians have regarding Comcast and if that company were to want a more restricted internet structure: the growth and success of that company means jobs and wealth for the region but some say it also means a less powerful internet.

Some other points from the night which I took my fellow panelists or audience members:

  • “The internet is the ultimate free market, more purely capitalistic than anything we’ve ever seen, certainly at least in the Western world,” said Dr. Susan Gasson. “At its purest, a free market is an infinite member of buyers and sellers put into contact.” …What tool could do that better than the internet?
  • Net neutrality could pull many organizing communities from throughout the political spectrum, said Bryan Mercer. The Tea Party owes its growth to an open and un-throttled internet as much as anyone, he said.
  • Communication is how we overcome poverty, Mercer also said.
  • People look for info in obvious places. Limiting access limits freedom of information, said Dr. Gasson
  • Dr. Susan Gasson used this tiered internet pricing breakdown to suggest how the internet might look if most concepts of net neutrality aren’t adhered to.
  • Dr. Gasson referenced this study from MIT [PDF] suggesting there is ‘artificial scarcity’ tactics being employed by ISPs to argue for allowing them to tier internet consumption use.
  • “You’re not going to know if your ISP is blocking/slowing down access to particular sites” without net neutrality said Rachel Colyer.
  • No Net Neutrality? “It’s like if libraries put all the great books on the top shelf. And charged you for ladders” said an audience member who was from Prometheus Radio.
  • While she spoke about coming from a perspective defending the freest, most open internet possible, Drexel professor Dr. Susan Gasson shared a few slides that might help inform someone new to the subject, which you can see below or find online here.

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