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?)