"Pipe" Dreams: The Future of a Non-Neutral Internet

October 13, 2006

On November 7, 2005, Business Week published online an interview with then-CEO of SBC Communications, Edward E. Whitacre. In the interview, the telephone mogul derided the use of his company's broadband "pipes" by Internet content providers like Google, Vonage, and MSN (O'Connell). "Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it," Whitacre said. "So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using" (qtd. in O'Connell).

While Whitacre's remarks could have easily been dismissed as the latest corporate fairytale, companies like Google and Yahoo! had reason to believe otherwise. They saw in his threats the beginning of a system that could change the face of the Internet. When Whitacre asked of the Internet upstarts, "How do you think they're going to get to customers?" the implication was clear enough (qtd. in O'Connell). Pay up, he seemed to say, or your site will not be as accessible as your competitor's (Clark).

Whitacre's comments and the ensuing debate ushered in a new era in Internet politics. At the heart of the discourse are questions about how much control broadband providers should exercise over the content traveling on their networks. Collectively these questions make up the issue known as "network neutrality." According to the public interest advocacy group Common Cause, a neutral network is one in which the broadband provider does not interfere with the user's ability to access Web content (Greenfield). Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the technology behind the World Wide Web, puts it another way. Using his definition, if John pays to connect to the Internet at a certain speed, and Jane pays to connect at that speed or greater, then they should be able to connect to each other at that speed (Berners-Lee).

Regardless of the precise definition used—and there are many—"network neutrality" has quickly polarized the Internet community. In favor of neutrality are content providers like Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, and Google, as well as many nonprofits and public interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (Greenfield). These groups fear that deals with broadband providers will take the place of innovation as the driving force behind the Internet. Opposed to neutrality are the major telephone and cable companies—such as BellSouth, AT&T/SBC, and Comcast—and network equipment manufacturers (Greenfield). They stand to make substantial profits by charging providers like Vonage and Google for premium access to users' screens.

Congress has failed to take a decisive stance on "network neutrality" (Eberhart 9). Both sides of the debate have powerful lobbying forces in Washington trying to sway Congressional votes. Meanwhile, the future of the Internet hangs in the balance. The cable and telephone industries want exclusive control of their "pipes," but the lack of competition between broadband providers could undermine the meritocracy that drives the Internet. To remedy the situation, Congress should pass network neutrality legislation that prevents content discrimination, encourages competition, and preserves the technical flexibility and human innovation on which the Internet was founded.

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