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Dan Davidson '11.5: Net neutrality, dead for some, ripe for compromise

In the wake of election day, Republicans eagerly pointed out the many specific policy proposals voters rejected with their ballots. As in years past, when it was the Democrats explaining which Republican ideas voters repudiated, few in the media are pointing out that these "analyses" are nothing more than spin-jobs applied to an election decided overwhelmingly by the economy and the fact that Democrats happened to hold most Congressional seats.

Emblematic of this post-election departure from logic was Scott Cleland's assertion that Democratic losses proved the American people are opposed to net neutrality. Net neutrality, according to the New York Times, is the idea that Internet providers "should treat all sources of data equally." In other words, data should be transmitted to your computer at the same rate, whether you are reading the New York Times or your friend's study-abroad blog. Some would like to see a different scenario emerge, in which the Times could pay an Internet provider to receive faster transmission.

Cleland, a telecom industry consultant who opposes net neutrality, noted that 95 candidates who signed onto a Progressive Change Campaign Committee pledge to support net neutrality all lost their races. For Cleland, this was more than enough evidence that Americans don't want net neutrality. Never mind that not a single candidate was an incumbent, all were Democrats in a terrible year for the party, or the possibility that any issue other than net neutrality could have influenced voters. Such pathetic attempts at understanding the election aren't problematic on their own, but several major media outlets picked up on Cleland's faulty analysis, running with stories declaring net neutrality doomed.

It is probably true that this Congress will be less friendly to net neutrality than the last. Several key supporters will not return to Washington, such as North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan — who sponsored a net neutrality bill in 2007 — and Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher, who is known for bringing both parties, industry and consumer groups together on telecom issues. And recent events make it increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to put off action on the issue for any longer than it already has.

In April, a federal appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission doesn't have the regulatory authority to enforce net neutrality. Since then, the FCC, members of Congress and industry have all tried to get the ball rolling on revising telecommunications law, but to little effect. Current rules regulating the Internet stem from the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Think about what the Internet was like in 1996, and it's obvious that we need a new regulatory framework.

Fundamental concerns make it essential that some form of net neutrality be established as law in the United States. Without net neutrality, Internet providers are free to censor content on the Web, either subtly, by making certain websites take an exceptionally long time to load, or overtly, by simply blocking them. Access to this valuable public good should not be controlled by a handful of corporations, but should instead remain open to all.

Beyond this core element of the debate, however, lie many opportunities for legitimate bipartisan compromise. Censorship cannot be allowed, but perhaps a tiered Internet, as envisioned by many Internet providers, could be workable. Access to websites wouldn't be denied, but some users could opt to pay more and in return receive service that prioritizes the Web traffic they most use, like streaming video. In many other countries, greater competition amongst Internet providers gives the public options if they are unhappy with how their service is prioritizing the websites they use. Americans often find themselves with only one or two local providers, so encouraging more competition could be a useful counterweight to scaled-back net neutrality proposals.

The issues surrounding net neutrality are obviously more complex than what I lay out here. But my point is that new rules governing the Internet and prohibiting censorship are badly needed, and that the new Congress has a real opportunity to work together in a meaningful way for the good of the public.

Whether or not lawmakers choose to take on this challenge remains to be seen. Unfortunately, many conservative organizations take a reactionary stand against net neutrality, playing up the popular Tea Party meme of limited government. But it's hard to understand how one can value freedom and free markets, yet not believe the government should prevent Internet providers, who often hold regional monopolies, from censoring Web content.

New rules will have a huge impact on our Internet-dependent generation, and we can't afford to let our lawmakers be short-sighted. However the new regulations get hashed out, young people should take an active interest in the subject — nothing less than the future of how we communicate is at stake.

Dan Davidson '11.5 is a political science concentrator from Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at



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