An amazing thing about legislative bodies is their ability to take stands on just about anything — from what type of fish can be used as bait, to promotion of alternative fuels, to plumbing licensure. It’s a wide range, and those examples just skim the surface.
But while many legislative actions are focused on specific niches of the community, there are times when state politicians dip their toes into more all-encompassing waters — and here in Maine, such a time is now.
State politicians recently acted on behalf of us little guys on two issues of national importance — Internet regulation and a sweeping identification system. In doing so, the Legislature set precedents for other states. When it rejected Real IDs (the standardized system of national identification cards that Congress approved in 2005 and that’s set to go into effect in 2009), Maine started a domino effect through states near (like New Hampshire) and far (like Montana). In the case of so-called “net neutrality” (more on that later; for now we’ll describe it as Internet equality), they’re hoping to do so.
It’s not surprising that other states are taking notice. The debates over both net neutrality and Real ID have whipped up some impressive amounts of hot air, in addition to legitimate worries, and regulatory wrangling. That the state legislature has taken these issues on at all is impressive; it’s too early to tell whether or not it’s also a bit quixotic.
Consider the following a primer on both subjects, so that as they continue to sweep the national stage (which they inevitably will), we can all say we were there first.
It’s the rare brain that can fully comprehend what net neutrality actually means.
At its core, the movement is about equality in the wide world of the Web. Net neutrality proponents, such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union and local small-Internet-business owners, don’t want big corporations like Time Warner or Verizon to “run the Internet” — charging more to load Yahoo’s pages faster, for example, or blocking customers from visiting MySpace.
The corporations say it’s their right to charge — and for customers to pay — in return for better network infrastructure and higher-speed service. Right now, telecom companies charge the end user for speed — which is why you pay more for Time Warner’s high-speed RoadRunner service than for dialup, and why your office likely gets even faster speed, for more cost. The same is true for Web sites — sites like Google.com or Yahoo.com that want extra bandwidth pay for it. But beyond that, all that Internet traffic is prioritized equally. Your e-mail to your mom about your vacation typically travels at the same speed as a video stream from CNN to a news junkie on the other side of the world.
What the telecom companies want to do — in order to make more money on the bandwidth they already have, and which they are paying to maintain, expand, and operate — is to get, say, eBay.com to pay them more money, and then give eBay’s Internet traffic priority over your e-mail. Net neutrality would guard against those extra fees, which inevitably would trickle down to the consumer.
Here’s where problem comes in: on today’s relatively free Internet, where everyone gets roughly equal speeds of information transfer (beyond that “last mile” between the telecom company and a home or office), there’s a wide proliferation of smaller sites, from your personal blog to an independent newspaper or Web site. If CNN pays enough, critics say, visiting those independent media outlets (operated usually on little to no money by individuals with something to say) will become a drag because they’d load slower, and whatever traffic those smaller sites have will dry up (and any ads they now earn a little cash from will get no hits).
On top of that, net neutrality advocates worry that telecom companies will use their increased power to block sites they consider to be either offensive or competition.
Legal, economic, and civil-rights concerns muddy the waters quite a bit. Is this a state or a federal issue? Will net neutrality stifle technological innovation? Does scrapping net neutrality, and giving telecommunications companies freer range, endanger free speech?
Straight answers to these questions are hard to come by.
“People are really confused about the issue,” says Lance Dutson, a Maine blogger and the founder of MaineCoastDesign.com, who supports net neutrality. “There’s a very limited understanding on the part of the legislature about the concept.” (Dutson also recently signed up with Senator Susan Collins’s re-election campaign as director of Internet strategy, which says something about the national scope of this issue.)
Last week, the state legislature took a step toward addressing that bewilderment. Taking a stricter proposal put forward by Portland state senator Ethan Strimling, and watering it down, the legislature approved a resolution that calls for the state’s Public Advocate to study net neutrality. By January 2008, that office is expected to issue a report on what Maine can and should do about the issue.
So it was a victory for anyone who appreciates informed politicians, not to mention that both sides — who’d thrown political heavyweights behind their respective lobbying efforts — claimed victory for themselves as well.
“Attempts to regulate Internet in Maine fall short,” read a press release sent out by FreedomWorks, a Washington, DC-based grassroots activist organization that champions low taxes and small government and leads the charge against net neutrality. (The Washington Post reported last year that FreedomWorks in fact wrangled some of its “grassroots activists” by getting people to unwittingly sign up for membership at the same time as they were buying a medical insurance policy.)
But advocates certainly didn’t see it that way. “Maine Is First State in Nation to Pass Net Neutrality Resolve,” cheered a release from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which said the “resolution recognizes [the] importance of nondiscriminatory access to the Internet.”
In fact, each group (neither of which would likely be able to afford priority Internet traffic if net neutrality fails) was telling the truth. The attempt to pass a law that would have addressed net neutrality ASAP failed; the resolution (less hardcore than a law) for further study was a success. Strimling himself said: “I would certainly support much stronger language, but make no mistake about it — this is still an important victory for net neutrality.”
No wonder it’s such a confusing mess, considering the amount of shrill propagandizing that comes from both sides. (Propaganda always seems shriller when people don’t know what they’re talking about, no?)
Consider this jumble of arguments. Allowing telecommunications companies to set prices would create a “digital caste system,” Dutson warns. Opposing net neutrality would be especially bad for Maine, where small businesses need all the help they can get. Net neutrality opponent Scott Cleland, a telecom consultant who blogs against net neutrality on NetCompetition.org, calls net neutrality bills “pro-junk-e-mail legislation” — a dubious assertion that ignores the fact that many spam companies would happily fork over extra cash in a non-net-neutral environment to get their e-mails past junk-mail filters. (In fact, in 2006 AOL drew criticism from free-Internet activists for implementing a version of this, in which paying e-mail-senders could avoid AOL’s junk-mail filter.)
There’s also some transparent fear-mongering going on, on the part of net neutrality opponents who claim that net neutrality could put both homeland security and personal privacy at risk by clogging up existing networks, increasing government “surveillance” of Internet traffic, and making the Internet less efficient overall.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
And it’s a lot of brouhaha for something that may ultimately have to be decided at the federal level because of the extremely inter-state nature of the Internet.
To that end, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe is the co-sponsor of the Internet Freedom Protection Act, which “would ensure that broadband service providers do not discriminate against Internet content, applications or services by offering preferential treatment,” according to her office. The bill has high-profile backers that include presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL).
Fletcher Kittredge, who is CEO and founder of the local Internet service provider Great Works Internet (GWI), competes directly with telecom giant Time Warner Cable in this region. Regardless of what the Public Advocate decides is the state’s role, Kittredge hopes the in-depth study will at the very least shed more light on the issue.
“To have someone like a bunch of lawyers sit down and do a careful, reasoned, analysis of the issues should hopefully move that discussion on,” he says. They will study it, and come back and say “there are some issues here and something needs to be done” — either at the state level or federally.
“One of the interesting things is that I think Senator Snowe, who is a pretty smart woman, has realized that this is a big issue,” Kittredge continues. “I’m hoping what this bill will do is: one, make it clear to her — and to Senator Collins … that they’re on the right track, and they should keep it up. And maybe raise the visibility of this a little to them so they’re wiling to put a little more political capital behind it.”
And no matter what, we’re stepping to the front of the pack on Internet policy, Dutson says. “The work that the state of Maine does to deal with the jurisdiction issue … that’s going to affect how the rest of the country looks at it on a state-by-state basis. We’re going to be in a much better position to have a leadership educated in the digital realm.”