Ed Felten quotes a disturbing snippet from an interview with SBC CEO Edward Whitacre concering traffic flowing through SBC pipes:
Q: How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others?
A: How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. 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. 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. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
Ed (Felten that is) rightly notes that calling the service free is hardly correct when SBC customers (me being one of them) pay monthly fees for it. He then goes on to discuss some other problems with the quote. But I want to focus on one particular issue having to do with SBC’s status as a common carrier.
Randy Zagar correctly points out in the comments to Ed’s post that common carriers are legally prohibited from monitoring the content of the traffic that flows through their pipes, which means that they cannot legally discriminate among content the user requests. So how could they do what CEO Ed Whitacre is suggesting? I’m not a legal scholar nor am I up-to-date on possible recent developments, but I am quite sure this law is still in effect. I welcome clarification.
The conversation on Ed’s blog regarding this matter seems to focus mostly on prices and commercial considerations. But how about political ones? What if an Internet service provider company had a leadership that was especially supportive of a certain political view (whether backing a particular political candidate or taking a certain side in a debate over, say, abortion or gay rights). Let’s say the leadership in said company was aligned enough with a particular perspective that they did not care if restricting access to certain content perhaps even led to lost revenues (in the short term or long). Let’s assume they were more interested in pushing a certain political perspective and decided to block access to Web sites that disagreed with these views. What then? If there are several players in town then the user can perhaps switch providers. That said, blocking usually happens in a way that doesn’t make it at all clear to the user what happened and why a certain site is inaccessible. So it is not clear that the user will know what alternative route to take to access the desired content.
The reason I decided to get DSL at home instead of cable is precisely because of the law concerning common carriers and their neutral stance with respect to content. I don’t want my provider to discriminate among the types of material I request. I went so far as to bother getting a land line installed just for my DSL connection despite the fact that I am already paying for basic cable anyway as part of my building’s assessment fees and so getting Internet access on cable would have been easier (and possibly cheaper). I realize this level of obsession with having guaranteed access to different types of content is probably not common, but I believed it to be an important enough distinction to bother. But what was the point if the CEO of my common carrier believes in what is articulated in the above quote?
Do head over to Ed’s post for more on problems with Whitacre’s comments.