Internet catastrophe theorists are at it again, playing on all our insecurities, whipping up our neuroses.
Take, for example, Creative Commons founder and Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who is terrifying us with horror stories about the government shutting the Internet down.
Late last month, at Fortune magazine’s illustrious Brainstorm: Tech conference in Silicon Valley, Lessig warned that the U.S. government is getting ready to impose its own Patriot-Act-style clampdown on Internet freedoms.
Sounding as paranoid as one of the adolescent authors of the 9/11 conspiracy movie Loose Change, Lessig contended that the Justice Department had already written up a Patriot Act look-alike for the Internet that would be imposed in the event of a major act of cyber-terrorism.
What is Lessig’s evidence for this crazy claim? Apparently, former federal counter-terrorism tsar Richard Clarke told him about this government plot to shut down the Internet.
Yes, that Richard Clarke -- the guy who has been an increasingly outspoken critic of the Bush administration. The same Richard Clarke who is now writing outlandish geo-political science fiction for a living.
So what’s really going on here? Substitute telephone and cable companies for the government -- and Lessig's real agenda may be the debate about Net neutrality.
This issue, in the way it is presented by Net neutrality advocates like Lessig, is all about keeping the Web safe from any attempt by broadband providers like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) to create a tiered Internet, which would charge businesses different rates to travel on their networks. "Leave the Internet alone -- it's ours!" is Lessig’s subliminal message. "They are out to get us," he’s whispering into your ear, Richard Clarke-style. "They want to shut down our Internet."
Some will say: By favoring legislation that will make it illegal to discriminate for or against certain kinds of online traffic, isn’t Lessig sticking up for the little guys, ordinary Internet users like you or me?
If that were the case, I would be much more sympathetic to his argument. Unfortunately, the companies that have the most at stake in the Net neutrality brouhaha are Internet leviathans like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), and Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO). Rather than David versus Goliath, Net neutrality is really a fight among big backbone providers and the giants of Silicon Valley and Redmond over the core principles of the broadband Internet economy.
While it is fashionable to vilify the big broadband providers, I think they have every right to establish varied pricing on their networks. Take Verizon, for example, which has invested $23 billion in wiring America with next-generation fiber optic cable to the home (FTTH).
Why shouldn’t Verizon establish special rates for broadband hogs like YouTube Inc. to distribute their video content? That seems to me to be a basic law of the free market, and if YouTube doesn’t want to pay extra for carriage on Verizon’s high-speed network, then the Google-owned company is free to take its content elsewhere and distribute it on an alternative broadband network (or invest $23 billion in its own FTTH service).
The cold Net neutrality war is about to get very hot. Lessig may be crazy, but he isn’t stupid. He knows that Obama will probably win the election and that a Democratic president and Congress are much more likely to pass Net neutrality legislation.
So expect more stories from Lessig and his pro-Net-neutrality allies about government plots to close down the Internet. These catastrophe theorists want to scare us. They are ratcheting up the paranoia so that we’ll support legislation that will make it illegal for any broadband provider to set tiered pricing over its own network.
Think twice about the Net neutrality debate. The real horror story here could be that Lessig and his pro-Net Neutrality lobby are discouraging investment in broadband infrastructure. And it may be them, rather than the Justice Department or the big telephone or cable companies, who are the real threat to the long-term viability of our Internet.
— Andrew Keen, Silicon Valley author, broadcaster, and entrepreneur