BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. A couple of months back, we discussed the prospect that one day the Internet might be split into a fast lane and a slow lane. That's because the telephone and cable companies that supply us with broadband service believe they're getting a raw deal. They say that content providers ought to be willing to pay extra for the high-speed delivery that is now available to all, a state of affairs called "network neutrality." Well, that fateful day may fast be approaching. Earlier this month saw the introduction of a House bill, soon to be followed by a Senate bill, neither of which include any real neutrality safeguards, though an alternative House bill does. If net neutrality is struck down, the anarchic Internet could become rigidly hierarchical, and some of the services you depend on could slow to a relative crawl. Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of culture and communication at New York University, and a staunch defender of net neutrality, and he joins us now to explain the stakes in this debate. Siva, welcome back to the show.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First Siva, the issue of net neutrality - it's as dry as it is crucial. Lay it out with feeling.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: The reason network neutrality is important is that if we want to keep cool services like YouTube or Facebook, really powerful, cool ideas made possible by the even playing field of the Internet, if we want to keep that culture healthy, then we want to make sure that there is something preventing these phone companies from discriminating and picking favorite companies over other ones.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the fact is Internet service providers are being forced to satisfy the exploding appetite, both of us, Internet users and also content providers, and don't they have a point in saying people who use it more, whose demands are greater, ought to pay a higher price for that?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Well, you know, the question is not, of course, whether individual consumers should pay more, because we do. If we want faster service, in general, we pay for it. The question is whether individual firms providing Internet services are going to pay more. Now, this is what the phone companies aren't telling you. The whole reason that there is a market for broadband is that there are cool services, video services like YouTube, multiple sources of content like Google, Internet phone services like Vonage and Skype. Those have created the very demand for broadband. If we didn't have that stuff, if every webpage were static and text-based, if we just did e-mail and instant messaging, we could all do very well with dial-up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough. But now the demand is there and AT&T and Verizon, among others, cable companies, are providing the pipes to that content. Why shouldn't they be able to profit as that market explodes?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Well, no one's arguing they shouldn't profit, and certainly no one's [LAUGHS] arguing that they don't profit. But what they're actually proposing doing is double billing. They want to charge me and you, consumers getting broadband service, a very high rate and extort money from the service providers, so that those willing to write the big check get their stuff delivered faster to you and me. That's not a fair business practice, nor is it really healthy for the sort of information and cultural environment and economic playing field that we really want to see on the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think what the phone and cable companies are saying is look, we're not going to prevent this stuff from getting to you, they just have to pay for higher speeds. But you live and die by speed on the Internet, don't you?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Well, especially if you look at the very services that threaten phone and cable companies - video delivery services like YouTube, I mean, that's a direct challenge to cable companies like Cox and Time Warner. And Internet phone services, like Vonage and Skype, which are providing really high-quality audio, global phone calls for almost no money - those companies threaten the core business of these older companies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: AT&T, Verizon, the cable companies have to maintain these physical plants. It's expensive. They have to constantly update. They have to do an enormous amount of service and billing and blahdy-blahdy-blah. Come on! You think they're just Dastardly Dans tying Pauline to the railroad track?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Not at all. They're rational actors. I mean, they're doing exactly what any of us would do in that particular situation. They're trying to maximize the rents they can charge. They're trying to seek out any money-making opportunity and identify what they think are free riders in their system. And so, like any rational company, they've spent a tremendous amount of money on lawyers and lobbyists, and they have the ear of Congress. So that has tilted the debate. We, on the other hand, you and me, consumers, people who actually pay for this kind of stuff and would suffer by this radical change in the Internet, we don't have lobbyists. Now, I still believe [LAUGHS] that if Congress and the FCC hear from enough Americans that we like how the Internet has grown, then we might actually take some advantage of our power as voters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, you've taken us to Washington, so let's stay there. There are a number of bills floating on Capitol Hill, including one this week in the House called the Communications Opportunity Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, or COPE. I've been reading about it. Some say it does offer a couple of protections for network neutrality. Others say it offers none at all. In any case, it is going to be decided behind closed doors, as will the later bill that's coming in the Senate, which apparently offers no protections for network neutrality.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah. You know, the whole legislative array right now is very confusing, and it's actually intentionally confusing. But basically what's going to happen is what all too often happens with these big telecom bills. They're going to have different versions passed in the House and the Senate. They're going to go to a conference committee. The conference committee is going to meet behind closed doors so that we the people get no clue as to who decides what or votes how. And then the House and Senate are going to be asked to approve a conference committee report coming out. There's a lot of question whether they can do all of this work before the end of this current session or whether they're going to hold it off till after the fall elections. But, you know, basically there's a lot at stake right now, and so far Congress has not heard the voice of the everyday consumer. They're basically letting the telecom lobbyists write the bills.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But isn't it hard to rally consumers around this issue? I mean I think, given the nature of the Internet, it's kind of hard to believe that it really, despite whatever regulation you may try impose on it, that it can really be controlled.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: There are a couple of different ways to look at this. There's the romantic way, right? The romantic way is that we want to have the Internet as the wild frontier for entrepreneurship, and that's a strong case. There's also the liberal free speech argument, which says we want the Internet to be a level playing field so a variety of voices can enter the public sphere. That's a fairly strong argument. But then you've got the economic argument, which is those of us who write checks every month to these companies, we want to be able to know that we are getting decent service for what we're paying. If my broadband company next week starts dialing down my Skype speed so Skype doesn't work as well for me, I might not even know it or notice it for a long time, until Skype starts frustrating me, and out of frustration, I'm just going to pick up my old phone and dial India the old-fashioned way and just pay for it because I know the call's going to go through. That's the sort of frustration and opacity we might start seeing on the Internet. So it is a service question, a competition question, an economic development question, a consumer question. And it really is dollars and cents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Siva, thank you very much.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Thank you Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Siva Vaidhyanathan is an assistant professor of culture and communication at NYU.