One of the key litmus test issues for the online left is support for ‘net neutrality’. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. As a story in the Wall Street Journal exposed today, net neutrality’s biggest supporters can’t even agree on what the term means. In their story Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web, the Journal reports that long time net neutrality supporter Google, Inc. “has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content.” Also reported by the Journal, well known net neutrality advocate and Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig recently said at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service. The WSJ claims that Google’s actions and Lessig’s words contradict the preferred policies that hard core net neutrality activists like Free Press and Savetheinternet.com want to see the federal government adopt.
But it turns out that both Google and Lessig never really shared the same vision of ‘net neutrality’ that the hard core activists did. Lessig writes:
As I testified in 2006, in my view that minimal strategy right now marries the basic principles of “Internet Freedom” first outlined by Chairman Michael Powell, and modified more recently by the FCC, to one additional requirement — a ban on discriminatory access tiering. While broadband providers should be free, in my view, to price consumer access to the Internet differently — setting a higher price, for example, for faster or greater access — they should not be free to apply discriminatory surcharges to those who make content or applications available on the Internet. As I testified, in my view, such “access tiering” risks creating a strong incentive among Internet providers to favor some companies over others; that incentive in turn tends to support business models that exploit scarcity rather than abundance. If Google, for example, knew if could buy a kind of access for its video content that iFilm couldn’t, then it could exploit its advantage to create an even greater disadvantage for its competitors; network providers in turn could deliver on that disadvantage only if the non-privileged service was inferior to the privileged service.
That’s the same thing I said to the FCC in its hearing at Stanford. You can hear what I said beginning at minute 18:20 here. There I distinguish between “zero price regulations” (such as Markey’s bill (which I say I am against)) and what I called “zero discriminatory surcharge rules” (which I say I am for). The zero discriminatory surcharge rules are just that — rules against discriminatory surcharges — charging Google something different from what a network charges iFilm. The regulation I call for is a “MFN” requirement — that everyone has the right to the rates of the most favored nation.
So it turns out that Lessig never supported the legislation that net neutrality advocates like Savetheinternet and Free Press are pushing for. Turns out, they want different regulatory regimes entirely. Something to keep in mind the next time net neutrality advocates say they have a petition showing millions of Americans support their cause.