May 2006 - Per Inquiry

Freedom of Choice Cuts

By now you’ve probably heard of net neutrality. It’s the legislative sensation that is sweeping the nation. But you may still wonder: what the heck is it? Simply put, AT&T and Verizon, the behemoth broadband suppliers that create a veritable duopoly among high-speed Internet service providers (ISPs), are contemplating a two-tiered system. The premise is that premium subscribers would receive faster service than others and marketers who pay a surcharge would get an added zing when they hit your computer screen. Net neutrality advocates that the free flow of information be kept on a level playing field and not subjected to a hierarchy, where the ISP gets to act as a gatekeeper with its hand extended. Seems it’s not your palm ISPs wish to shake.

In response, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has put forth a bill to ensure net neutrality. The senator’s bill is aimed at protecting small business owners, who, unable to compete with bigger players, could find their stop at the toll booth along the information superhighway akin to Sonny Corleone’s demise. On the other hand, the Jeffersonian in me considers: if the big telecoms laid the highway, perhaps they have the right to charge extra. After all, how is it any different from the private enterprise that builds those toll roads in places like Southern California as a fee-based alternative to clogged public freeways? Then again, one could argue it’s really the government’s responsibility to maintain the roads. Under this logic, we could turn the whole mess over to them to run-you know, the same folks who make you wait for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Uh, never mind.

I guess you could say as consumers we want to have our cake and eat it, too. Or, if you’re the baker, you might think of the line frequently attributed to Marie-Antoinette, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.” Well, we all know what happened to her.

Speaking of the French, their government is proposing a law that would force Apple to open the architecture of its dominant iTunes Music Store so that it could be used on any player, not just the ubiquitous iPod. With a market share hovering at 70 percent of the PC-based digital music world, France seeks to break up Apple’s, ahem, monopoly. Except, I am an unabashed fan of the company, and it’s the sheer elegance of the iPod that inspired me to buy a PowerBook like all those übercool people in shows like “Sex and the City,” and besides, they help fund the best computer animated movies, and…I guess that worm in my Apple isn’t original sin. It’s merely the very human capacity for hypocrisy.

But here’s the thing: I will willingly pay 99 cents for a download of “Upside Down” from Curious George to keep my own three-year-old love monkey happy. And when it comes to that broadband pipe, it’s not like I’m smoking it for free. I just don’t want to see my ISP start acting like the pusher man. That’s why I’m glad the Man from the Beaver State is taking action to ensure we don’t get fleeced and that the digital divide doesn’t turn into the abyss.

Rick Petry is chief marketing officer of Downstream. He can be reached at (503) 226-1944, or via e-mail at r[email protected]. Or, visit


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