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Op-Ed: Through the Looking Glass

1/03/2007 02:11:00 AM Eastern

To a spinmeister, a name can be a most flexible tool. Case in point? The term 'net neutrality'.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

So Alice Through the Looking Glass 135 years ago. So, very much, today.

The yeasty ferment of Internet politics creates peculiar alliances.

The oddest yet may be Google and best pal Microsoft -and consigliere Larry Lessig - teaming up to fight off attempts by broadband pipe owners (like Comcast and Verizon) to charge certain heavy content suppliers (like, er, Google and Microsoft) more to use their networks than other suppliers (like, er, Comcast and Verizon.) savetheinternet.com  makes forceful arguments for this position, as do clever and well produced video shorts on (Google-owned) YouTube. Neutrality, in this view, demands that all comers pay the same rate to access a 'flat' (as opposed to a multitier performance) Internet.

The pipe owners, naturally, want to be able to charge big users more, and point to the simple fact that it's their investment which essentially created the broadband world.

This battle inevitably moves to the FCC. Instead of defending a frozen concept of neutral access, the Commission may better serve the public interest by letting the network owners have their way - as long as the FCC also serves up some added open spectrum. This would expand both the speed and the distance that the evolving, free WiMax standard will operate over. Thus enhance, WiMax can become an even more effective competitive force. Owners of fast but pricey private wirelines will need to reckon with this by adding value. Thus, the FCC can ensure real net neutrality. (Google, nothing if not smart,  has also bet this side of the table, by funding efforts to provide free WiFi (much inferior to WiMax) in a number of western cities.)

In politics, geeks are often described as anarcho-libertarians (unlike Groucho, this is a club I include myself in); 'Hands off my computer' is our rallying cry. However, let me point out a second geek axiom: 'The Internet sees censorship as a network outage, and routes around it.' I would argue that the Internet will see differential pricing - a non-Neutral Net - as just such an outage, and the venture world will happily finance all sorts of free wireless ways around it, to the consternation of the pipe owners and to the ultimate benefit of the public.

A little bit later in that chapter in Through The Looking Glass, you may recall that Humpty recites a poem to Alice:

'I sent a message to the fish: I told them "This is what I wish."'

The fish here are you and me; we're supposed to believe that the regulation demanded by Google, Amazon and Microsoft, (in their role as Defenders of Liberty) will assure us that our Internet will be forever Free. For some reason I instinctively feel for my wallet.

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