Changing the Internet for The Worse

Two nights ago Congress passed legislation that could very well lead to serious, negative changes in the way the Internet works in the future. I voted against this flawed bill.

The main point of the bill, the COPE Act, is to provide the phone companies with national video franchises so they can provide alternative cable TV choices. The bill passed 321 to 101.

As I considered this legislation, I talked to constituents and industry experts both in Washington, D.C. and back home. Everyone I talked to expressed support for the broad concepts of increasing competition to cable, lowering prices, and offering consumers better choices. Yet many had grave concerns that the legislation as written failed to ensure better services for all consumers and potentially threatened next generation technologies.

One of my biggest problems with this bill is that it fails to insure "network neutrality" on the Internet. Net neutrality has become a buzzword of sorts as the debate over this bill intensified both on Capitol Hill and on the Central and South Coast.

The phone companies have made clear their intentions to establish a system where they decide the speed at which different bits of data can move across the network, in essence creating a "fast lane" and a "slow lane" and maybe many in between. If they do so, the cable companies will quickly follow suit.

This is a bad idea for two reasons. First, it means that small players on the Internet will find it harder to use the world wide reach of the Internet to bring their new ideas to market. This could prevent the next Google or MySpace from emerging due to the inability to pay phone and cable company fees for the "fast lane" of internet access.

Second, the lack of nondiscrimination among data bits allows for the distinct possibility that the phone and cable companies could block or slow the sites and services of their competitors.

I don't see in the phone and cable industries the kind of wide open competition that is present today on the Internet. And given that lack of competition, I question the commitment of those companies to protecting a system that allows open competition and fosters innovation. The absence of net neutrality poses serious threats to the next generation of internet innovators and to consumers who should be allowed to choose the best product regardless of whether it is offered by an established firm or a new technology start up.

I was a strong supporter of an amendment offered by my colleague Rep. Markey that would have ensured "Network Neutrality" by maintaining our current system of nondiscrimination for access to the World Wide Web network. Unfortunately, this amendment failed last night. Thus legislation that was supposed to be about creating more competition and giving consumers more choices and lower prices will likely produce fewer choices and higher prices.