Photo By AMY BECK If U.S. Sen. John Ensign has his way, internet providers will have more latitude to distinguish among customers on prices and access to service.

U.S. Sen. John Ensign is pushing ahead with his effort to get rid of net neutrality, and it is bringing him into conflict with the foreign policy of the United States.

The concept of net neutrality is that internet service providers must treat all sources of data equally, including pass-through, even if a provider disapproves of the content.

Under net neutrality, companies can’t give preference to content providers who pay for speed. Nor can they give preference to their own content or block content of which they disapprove. Without net neutrality, corporations like AT&T or Verizon could block any website they wanted—or degrade their service. Sites that criticize the communications conglomerates would be vulnerable.

Getting rid of net neutrality would also open the internet to being a toll road. Service providers could artificially slow traffic down unless customers paid for higher speeds.

In effect, net neutrality prevents lower and upper class access on the web. Everyone gets the same access and the same kind of access, whether they are the New York Times or a local coffee shop website.

Ensign wants that policy ended. In December, the Federal Communications Commission, in patented political fashion, adopted rules that watered down net neutrality without getting rid of it entirely. The new rules prevent fixed-line broadband providers from blocking access to sites and applications while permitting wireless companies to limit access to services and applications. In effect, it creates a different class for wireless users than fixed-line providers.

That was not enough for Ensign. On Dec. 21, he responded, “As the rest of the world forges ahead, the United States will face a technological ‘Lost Decade’ as these new FCC rules restrict access to the Internet and stall this type of innovation in our country. I had hoped that the FCC would act in the best interest of the United States, but I was, unfortunately, wrong.”

He said he and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson will introduce a resolution to stop the FCC action from taking effect. However, the Republican majority in the U.S. House is ahead of him, approving an amendment to a spending bill that would block the FCC rules. The vote was 244-181. The amendment must also be passed by the Democratic-majority Senate, survive a conference, and be signed by a president who opposes it.

Supporters of neutrality say it protects the web from political interference. Reno computer consultant Michael Graham cited the lack of neutrality requirements in the broadcasting field as an example of how the internet field needs to be protected from similar interference.

“The best example I can think of is when [Sinclair Broadcast Group] refused to broadcast the anchor who was reading the dead soldiers’ names,” he said. On April 30, 2004, a 40-minute edition of ABC’s Nightline ran the photo, military branch, rank and age of each of the 700 servicemembers who had died in Iraq while anchor Ted Koppel read the names. Sinclair blocked the program from its viewers on its seven stations around the nation.

As for Ensign’s claim that government taking hands off the internet would foster innovation, Graham says experience does not show that. He points out that from the early 20th century until 1982, American Telephone and Telegraph enjoyed a near-monopoly in the United States in which it could operate without competition and with little government regulation. The result was a staid, slow-moving monolith that advanced technologically at a snail’s pace and prohibited consumer choices from more progressive companies. Consumers were not even permitted to own phones—they rented them from the phone company—and for 40 years the basic AT&T model phones afflicted home decorating. “You remember the telephone company kept that same black telephone for decades,” Graham said.

Ensign is also bucking the U.S. foreign policy objective of encouraging the net neutrality that U.S. officials believe fostered the uprisings now underway in the Middle East. In a Feb. 15 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew attention to the way the internet was turned off by the Egyptian government in an effort to prevent democracy advocates from organizing and getting their messages out.

“In China, the government censors content and redirects search requests to error pages. In Burma, independent news sites have been taken down with distributed denial of service attacks,” she said. “In Cuba, the government is trying to create a national intranet, while not allowing their citizens to access the global internet. In Vietnam, bloggers who criticize the government are arrested and abused. In Iran, the authorities block opposition and media websites, target social media, and steal identifying information about their own people in order to hunt them down.”

She continued, “On the spectrum of internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness. Now, we recognize that an open internet comes with challenges. It calls for ground rules to protect against wrongdoing and harm. And internet freedom raises tensions, like all freedoms do. But we believe the benefits far exceed the costs.”

Nor is it just foreign policy that Ensign is bucking. It’s also consumer policy. His position would permit providers to start charging consumers for the speed they have come to enjoy. If Jane Doe can’t afford the same online speed that John Ensign can, she would just be out of luck.

Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are among those trying to close down the unfettered nature of the internet. DISH Network and Sprint, however, are opposing changes that would undercut net neutrality. According to a June 2010 report by the Center for Responsive Politics, opponents of any change in the status quo were being outspent in lobbying expenditures 4-to-1.

According to Open Secrets, AT&T is Ensign’s second highest contributor, providing him with $68,750.

It may be that the bigger the company, the greater the interest in tampering with neutrality. Community-based companies are resistant to changes in the status quo. Bruce Robertson, president of Nevada’s Great Basin Internet Service, said, “I think it should be fully neutral. All of the internet providers who are trying to prioritize their services are just shooting themselves in the foot.”

He said internet service should be tailored to the consumer’s wants, not the company’s desires. “The public wants service, so internet providers have to find a way to provide it.”

Last year, a coalition of religious and political conservatives sent a joint letter to members of Congress expressing anxiety about corporations being unable to censor what the letter called obscenity. “Net neutrality regulations also call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated,” the letter read. Chuck Muth, a Nevada columnist, was one of the signatories to the letter.

The Nevada blog NyeGateway.com argues, “We want to get on the Internet and move around on it at the fastest speed we can. We want to watch videos, listen to a podcast, send an instant message or e-mail to someone any time we want. We share pictures with our families. Research our family trees. Buy books on Amazon. Write blogs. Visit Facebook. But don’t just assume it is always going to be that way.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...