Wall Street Journal Stabs At Net Neutrality

    July 30, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

It’s interesting, but not surprising, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is the target of a scathing editorial by the Wall Street Journal. He’s an easy and popular target these days from both sides of just about any issue involving the FCC. He stinks. Everybody knows it.

What is surprising is that the editorial in question, which is not specifically authored and thus becomes the official stance of the WSJ as an entity, not only oversimplifies the topic at hand (surely WSJ readers are at a sufficient level to understand complex topics right?), but also sets up the WSJ as a mimic of Comcast apologists and telecom shills.

It’s not surprising, and not interesting, that a paper like the WSJ, especially since the News Corp. acquisition, would rest on its conservative, let-the-system-fix-itself, anti-regulation and probably wing-tipped heels. What is surprising and interesting is that a journalistic enterprise would allow its editorial staff to seemingly copy and paste from lobbyist talking point handouts.

Worse, the arguments made are laughable in places, myopic in others, and some are based on premises patently untrue. A simple handing off of the editorial to an opposing viewpoint pre-publishing would have helped at least strengthen the intended argument. As is, it makes it seem the editorial writer(s) never had the intention of building a fair representation.

Note I didn’t say "unbiased" representation. There’s no such thing even in straight journalism, much less editorials. This particular editorial wouldn’t matter as much if by a single author. It’d be just another opinionated jerk (like me!) spouting off in text. But this appears to be the official word from the WSJ, word that never saw the wood grain of a counter-arguer’s desk.

Let’s dissect some of it:

"In his last months as Master of the Media Universe, [Martin] seems poised to expand government regulation of the Internet." Yes, we’ve established Martin stinks. A poor conservative in general, he has tried to exert his own authority over all aspects of media for whatever personal or political reasons, from excessive action against so-called "fleeting expletives" to content regulation even on cable television, from forced a la carte cable programming to issues with media consolidation, from extreme telecom favoritism to proposing a Martin-approved free broadband network.

But as far as the situation with Comcast is concerned, which is the central issue upon which the editorial pivots, regulation of "the Internet" has nothing to do with it. It’s regulation of Internet service providers so they can’t manipulate or control what their paying customers have access to. The Internet itself isn’t to be touched.

This sentence was choice: "The FCC is by all accounts planning this week to uphold a complaint against Comcast, the cable company accused of throttling attempts to trade movies and other high-bandwidth files on its network that slow down Internet service for everyone else."

Notice it starts out true and ends debatably. Nice technique except that network management is a trumped up excuse to cover what the real issue is: Comcast denied interfering with customers’ access to specific, legal Internet services, but were proven to be doing so by independent, investigative testing. The interference among US cable providers was so extensive that only Chinese providers matched them in terms of blocked content access—cable providers in Europe, South America, and other places had no such restrictions. Network management doesn’t change the fact that Comcast selectively blocked access to content. Network neutrality, which the WSJ put in quotes as though not a serious term, is already in place when it comes to devices attaching to telephone systems, and is really about not allowing ISPs to block access to any Internet content or harmless applications. It is not, as opponents have misinformed, about disallowing ISPs from offering different speeds at different prices to consumers as they do now.

The editorial cites Comcast reached an agreement with BitTorrent, an act constituting "a private resolution of a technical dispute." This again oversimplifies things toward building support for a specific outcome. BitTorrent is just one peer-to-peer company, making it not only the preferred partner of Comcast, but one of the only p2p providers approved by Comcast. Another "network neutrality" alarm, this arrangement paves the way for these types of arrangements to continue so that AT&T’s dreams of an Internet where Yahoo can pay to have its site load faster than Google’s—or even instead of Google’s—can become a reality. Any website without the cash or will to pay ISP extortionists would be effectively offline. Schemes like these aren’t theoretical. They are AT&T’s stated intent, and Comcast’s BitTorrent arrangement is a real world example of it.

The WSJ criticizes Martin for stepping across the aisle to work with the two Democrat commissioners to "force Comcast to change its network management model to his liking." First, he’s never been shy about opposing Democrats, so why he’s suddenly on their side is a mystery. (Though it may have something to do with his apparent hatred of cable and willingness to stick it to them whenever he can while letting Verizon and AT&T slide on the other side in regards to their own censorship debacles). Second, it’s the net neutrality movement’s liking, which just happens to fall in line Martin’s ever-changing goals this time. Martin’s ineptitude was also a convenient vehicle for the WSJ to take a stab at some other ideological opponents, which is really a bit shady.

We’ll close with this paragraph, which, after reading several times becomes more and more blatant and absurd. "Mr. Martin is forcing a solution in search of a problem. But the bigger concern is that the chairman is taking a huge step toward putting in place a regulatory regime that would give the FCC, rather than Internet service providers, unprecedented control over how consumers use the Web. Mr. Martin is also greasing the skids for a potential Barack Obama Administration to take an Internet industrial policy who knows where."

The "solution in search of a problem" rhetoric has been used to death, mostly by telecom and cable lobbyists, and sometimes by the legislators whose ears are quite open due to heavy campaign financing. There is nothing currently—aside from Martin’s personal content censorship ambitions, which have been repeatedly struck down by the courts—that would give the FCC control over how consumers use the Web.

And is there anything more ridiculous than that last line about Obama? Make no mistake, for all of Martin’s many faults, he’s a Bush-man ideologue through and through, achieving his lofty position after a show of fancy lawyering for Bush’s 2000 campaign. And Obama has clearly outlined what he plans to do in terms of Internet industrial policy, so we know where that would go—maybe the WSJ should read that policy statement instead of assuming there isn’t one. What’s "unprecedented" is the Wall Street Journal shilling for Comcast and the telcos by coupling a failed FCC chairman with the Chief Anti-Conservative just to get the base readership riled up enough to push through an underlying agenda.

There are, actually, decent, agenda-free arguments against Net Neutrality, and against regulation. The WSJ presented none of them and instead allowed a poorly argued could-have-been-written by Comcast editorial to appear in their publication. Of course, News Corp. has definite interests in not only being buddies with Comcast but also in defeating network neutrality—think in terms of movies and television content and don’t forget their satellite properties—and has never been shy about being anti-regulation at whatever cost to the consumer. It’s surprising, though, how quickly those agendas have seeped into the journalistic standards of the Wall Street Journal.