By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Net neutrality and the politics of pizza

Imagine living in a world in which Domino’s could pay your phone company to make it impossible for you to call other pizza joints. That can’t happen because, legally, phone services are considered “common carriers,” which must accept all traffic in a non-discriminatory manner. Which is what the battle over net neutrality is all about.

This week the FCC’s three Democrats backed a too-weak proposal to ensure net neutrality that the Republicans vowed to oppose anyway. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical arcana, but, according to news reports like this one, net neutrality will be more or less assured on wired broadband networks such as cable and FIOS, while the market will have its way on wireless networks.

Which network do you suppose will be more important in 10 years — or two, for that matter? Wired or wireless?

Take a look at this post on Engadget, which obtained an actual proposal for wireless broadband providers to charge extra for access to Facebook, Skype and YouTube. It’s a variation on a theme that Sen. Al Franken sounded in a must-read essay. Franken points out that, without net neutrality, Verizon could block Google Maps and charge you extra to use its own inferior mapping service. Franken writes:

Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist. That’s why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time.

Back when the debate was over media concentration, old-school conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition made common cause with liberal groups to stop the FCC from making a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, the newly ascendant Tea Party right is so hostile to government activism that it opposes efforts to ensure net neutrality.

This week’s action by the FCC was not definitive. Net neutrality is an issue that we’ll be revisiting again and again in the years ahead. But given President Obama’s stated support for neutrality, this may be as good as it gets. And it’s not very good.

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  1. Dan, “arcana” is right, but yours is one of the clearest explanations I have seen. Of course, given my interest in food, the pizza analogy helps enormously.

  2. L.K. Collins

    I would much prefer the private sector control the speech than the government or one of its agencies.

    The FCC originated to bring order to the scarce resources of the electromagnetic spectrum used for radio/TV transmission.

    The internet and its supporting cable networks are certainly not a scarce resource bandwidth wise.

    FCC should stay out of this.

  3. Mike Benedict

    Once again, LK comes down on completely the wrong side of, well, everything.

    The “market” in this case does not exist. Companies license the airwaves from the government. They adhere to government-determined practices.

    The FCC’s charter was established by Congress in 1934, so no, it most certainly should not stay out.

    And the proper Constitutional response is, no one should control speech.

    What, were things really so great when AT&T had a monopoly?

  4. L.K. Collins

    Please, oh Mighty Mikey, show us where the FCC has jurisdiction over what comes over a cable connection.

    Note, they have no control over content of your favorite trash TV shows coming over the same wire.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Apples and oranges. This has nothing to do with content regulation. By law, you can’t discriminate against certain types of traffic on phone lines. The FCC is saying the same principle should prevail on broadband lines. It should — and wireless, too.

  5. Mike Benedict

    Dear LK:

    Happy Kwanzaa!

  6. Steve Stein

    I’ve read this post three or four times but all I can think of is pizza. Is that Pepe’s or Sally’s?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: That’s Modern Apizza in New Haven. Great place.

  7. Steve Stein

    I married a New Haven girl who favors Pepe’s… the idea of the Modern is a bit of a heresy to her.

  8. Martin Callaghan

    Net Neutrality is about maintaining two long-standing principles in this country:

    First, that airspace belongs to the people and, as such, the government licenses the use of this space.

    Secondly, that communication lines cannot discriminate.

    Absolutely these same principles should prevail on broadband lines and wireless networks. Communication is communication.

  9. Neil Sagan

    The technology that makes the Internet possible was funded by US taxpayers. If the FCC is going to give control to Verizon and Comcast and other large carriers, for the wireless access sector, the taxpayers has an interest in the profit they make from that right control.

    Interesting that the wireless is what the FCC granted private control over when it is the least justifiable according to folks who want to make the argument that wired (broadband) access is beyond the scope of the FCC.

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