Is the Internet “Creaky?”

Former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry's work for Hands off the Internet rates a story in today's LA Times. It's the standard "strange bedfellows" tale, showing McCurry taking flak from his former left-wing allies for becoming the front man for what strikes me as a strained effort by the telecommunications firms to look like defenders of the Internet.

To McCurry's foes, what the telcos want is the ability to charge customers more for certain services while offering competing services of their own. Inevitably, the telcos will be in charge of Internet content because they've got the power to squeeze out everyone else. That's the theory anyway, but McCurry thinks it's ridiculous paranoia.

This McCurry comment jumped out at me as revealing of the underlying nature of the net neutrality debate:

"On Net neutrality, I feel like screaming 'puh-leeeze,' " (McCurry) wrote on the Huffington Post, where he sometimes blogs. "The Internet is not a free public good. It is a bunch of wires and switches and connections and pipes and it is creaky."

Is the Internet really that "creaky?" Or is the issue really about the future use of the Internet to deliver video on demand?

The advocates of net neutrality, such as Save The Internet, represent Internet users of today, such as bloggers and companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft that make their money off unique Internet capabilities like search engines. They are defending a technology that has changed the world, because it is a medium that puts users in charge of what they read and see, and creates opportunities for conversation and collaboration.

How many people who surf the Net for information, or who post to a blog about an issue they're passionate about, would rather be using the Net to watch Jennifer Aniston's latest movie? Not many, I would wager. Some of them might have wanted advance clips from the film, which you could get, but not the whole movie.

The video-viewing experience on the net has an unspoken time limit. You might watch clips on YouTube, say, for three, five, ten minutes, but you're unlikely to sit in front of your computer to watch a 90-minute movie. Your fingers would itch. You'd be tempted to click away to check out something else. It's not like watching TV, which is essentially passive.

What McCurry's group wants is to be able to finance, through user fees, an expansion of bandwidth that would allow distribution of long-form, high-definition video via the Internet. But does the Internet really need to be used for that purpose?  Are today's Internet users asking for it? 

If I want to watch a movie, I already have video-on-demand options via my cable operator, and if I'm willing to plan ahead just a little, I have even more options. In terms of video, the neat thing about the Internet is to be able to see user-generated content, which costs the user almost nothing to produce and distribute. If I wanted to watch a Hollywood production that cost tens of millions of dollars, I know where to find that — on TV, on Netflix, at a movie theater. But where else could I find a four minute clip of two Chinese college students lip-syncing to a bad song, except the Internet? google1960.jpg

More seriously, if I want to search quickly for information about a consumer product, a health symptom, or a bill going through Congress, the Internet is the only thing that lets me do that. Before the Internet, this kind of research required a trip to the library — if it could be done at all. (That's the point of the "Google 1960" joke, reproduced on the right.)

So, is it possible that the net neutrality debate is really a struggle about which media the existing and future bandwidth should be dedicated to? (Sorry for the lousy grammar.) Users or moviegoers? Or maybe this comes closer: Grassroots content providers vs. big-budget content providers. There's room for both in the world, but is there room for both on the Internet?

Sure, I might be lacking in vision. Maybe there are high-bandwidth applications other than transmission of movies that will liberate us as much as the Internet has done.

But if that's the case, McCurry needs to do more than slag the Internet as "creaky." He needs to outline his organization's vision of this future. Don't expect us to take the telcos word for it that they want to give us something "better" without describing what "better" is. Because what we've got today is effecting a revolution in communications, and I'm not sure that revolution is finished yet.

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