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Monday, July 03, 2006

Policymakers need to learn about technology before they make policy regulating technology

Last week, the US Senate Commerce Committee voted a narrow 11-11 on passing an amendment that would enforce basic Net Neutrality provisions in a telecommunications bill that was just passed. The most astonishing part of all of this is Senator Ted Stevens' (of Alaska) explanation of why he voted against the bill. A partial transcript is available at the Wired blog, and the full audio recording of Stevens' speech is available at Public Knowledge.

I think what's most startling about this is just how wrong Stevens' ideas are about how the internet both functions and is used. Stevens seems to think that a staggering majority of the average user uses the internet solely as a means of communication in its most primitive form: e-mail and chat. It is not enough to say that he is wrong and that many users (and many more with each new batch of kids getting exposed at an early age) do use the internet for more than e-mail and chat. The point that Stevens actually misses is that there is much more that the internet can offer as far as communication services go. The internet is turning the act of communicating into something more than a two-person back-and-forth dialogue. Knowledge and creativity are now capable to take any shape beyond the restrictions of text when being passed from creator to audience. This isn't just businessmen and family members communicating, as Stevens claims, this is humanity communicating with itself! The senator uses the example of the amount of bandwidth hogged by users downloading movies; even if this is the case, shouldn't the solution be to foster research in making the internet faster so that more people can enjoy this luxury at a lower cost? It just so happens that the senator's example does not represent the full potential of use of the internet and net neutrality. The big corporations that are using the internet as a distribution method for their commercial goods (which, by the way, is not really being done by anyone except Apple's iTunes Music Store anyways) will still use the internet to do that in the absence of net neutrality and in the presence of a multi-tiered system. Warner Bros. et al will certainly be able to fork over the appropriate amount of money to make their site as fast as need be to allow users to download movies fast. YouTube, on the other hand, will surely languish. But moving beyond just video, what about other media that's shared across the internet? What about programmers trying to share code or documentation about certain software that they've written? Most of these projects won't have enough money to get their site operating at the same speed as Disney or Google. Scholars in academia won't be able to properly fund a fair connection speed for their archives or personal webpages (i.e. forget about semanticsarchive). Effectively, the absence of net neutrality provisions is equivalent to the creation of the carpool lane that single-passenger cars can pay to get into.

Listening to the Net Neutrality debates, it becomes very clear very quickly who's thought about the issue carefully and who hasn't; who is open to learning more before making such a rash and important decision and who just doesn't care. And then there's Senator Stevens, who seems to be under the impression that one can send an internet, which is made up of tubes.

Now we have a separate Department of Defense internet now, did you know that?

Do you know why?


No Senator, do you?

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