By Mike McCurry
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Mike McCurry is a partner at Public Strategies Washington Inc. where he provides strategic communications counsel. He is a co-chairman of Hands off the Internet, a coalition of telecommunication-related businesses. McCurry served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton from 1995 until 1998.
(CNN) -- The debate over Internet content regulations ultimately comes down to one issue: Who'll pay for the billion-dollar upgrades required for tomorrow's Internet?
Under their self-proclaimed banner of "neutrality," Google, eBay and other big online companies are lobbying for what amounts to a federal exemption from paying. Unfortunately, their thinly disguised effort at self-interest would dramatically shift the financial burden of paying for these upgrades onto the backs of ordinary consumers.
On Thursday night, by a bipartisan vote of 269 to 152, Congress agreed and rejected Internet regulations.
Let's put this issue in a larger context: The Internet is on the verge of one of the most dramatic breakthroughs in its history. Pretty soon, more and more Internet users will be streaming data-rich video into their homes, using the Web for online games, practicing telemedicine and having voice conversations.
But standing in the way of these benefits is the need for substantial network upgrades. Face it, the current Internet is creaky and will quickly get congested without improvements.
The Internet providers need to recoup their investments and one way is to charge a premium for managing bandwidth content differently. The need for this is self-evident: Data from a video or phone conversation has to be prioritized differently than data from a standard Web site access.
But regulations pushed by Amazon, Google, eBay and the other companies would essentially prohibit data transfer arrangements between high-speed access providers and big content companies. The inevitable results: Companies pay less for the Internet's build-out, consumers pay more and progress slows on providing affordable broadband.
It's also worth asking whether eBay or Amazon would support efforts to increase federal regulation of their businesses, say, Amazon's exclusive arrangement to sell toys through Toys R Us? Once the Feds start regulating some areas of the Net, it's inevitable that they'll push into other areas.
The Communications Workers of America -- representing 700,000 working men and women who are on the front lines (literally) of America's telecom industry -- recently told Congress that if it approves content regulation, then "investment in the physical infrastructure necessary to provide high-speed Internet will slow down, the U.S. will fall even further behind the rest of the world [in broadband deployment], and our rural and low-income populations will wait even longer to enter the digital age."
Several conservative organizations have also spoken out on similar problems. And as a recent Forrester Research analysis concluded, if these regulations become law, "Legal costs will shoot through the roof -- draining the pockets of everyone involved." That may be great news for lawyers, but not for ordinary consumers who'll be forced to pick up the tab.
Finally, even beyond the "who pays" argument, there are other reasons to reject Internet regulations. For example, as the pro-regulation crowd refuses to acknowledge, current federal laws provide consumers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with significant protection from online discrimination. These include laws governing anti-trust, competition and commercial interference. And legislation that passed the House on Thursday night -- sponsored by Republican Rep. Joe Barton (Texas) and Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush (Illinois) -- would increase the FCC's authority to police online discrimination.
Regulating Internet neutrality may a great idea in Amazon's corporate boardroom. But for ordinary consumers, it's a sure ticket to higher prices and fewer choices.
What do you think? E-mail us
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on CNN.com that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.
CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on Mike McCurry's commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.
Fascinating how Mr.McCurry manages to morph "net neutrality" into "content regulation." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that net neutrality is supposed to eliminate content regulation. Neither side of this debate addresses the matter of peer-to-peer communications e.g. VPN usage and the like. Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. companies like mine already pay way too much for way too little bandwidth. When the telcos create the tiered Internet, they will just be grabbing more money from us.
Since in the long run the user is going to pay and since it's only right that the larger the user the larger the bill. Why not bite the bullet, determine the most effective way to produce the upgrade and to collect the revenue and be on with it?
Mike makes his argument sound reasonable, but that's the skilled politician for you. His argument is totally beside the point. The point not being that the content providers should not pay their fair share, but that Telco's should not be allowed to differentiate between providers by making them pay unfair amounts to get their site favored, effectively forcing content onto their subscribers, while blocking, or making less accessible, other content. Telco's provide the data highways, and my 'destination' should not be allowed to affect the amount of 'congestion' I face in getting there.
Why should web site companies pay a toll for infrastructure upgrades to the Internet? The author claims this is to keep the expense off the shoulders of the consumer, but make no mistakes -- the consumer will pay for it one way or the other. Ebay, Amazon, Google, et al will all find a way of passing any increased cost on to the people who use their services. The only thing that making such web sites pay more for their uses will ensure is that it will be only that much more difficult for new start ups on tomorrow's internet.
Yes, somebody has to pay for the upgrades. Is somebody saying it will not be me? Any way you slice it I will pay. I am willing to pay for my right to choose. I am willing to pay $3.50 a month so my local provider does not filter my options. I want the net to be open. My daily news is already filtered by the powers that be. It is the only real freedom of open access I have.
If we are going to make major changes, let's go all the way and switch from subscription payment to metered payment. Charge the end user a standard rate per megabyte of downloads. This is the only fair way of running the Internet. Things did not start out this way, because there was not enough computer power to keep track of megabytes; now there is.
"The Internet providers need to recoup their investments." Need? No, not in a free market. They want to, and may go out of business or suffer lower profits without this. If they don't have a handle on their business, why should they be allowed to extort fees from others?
The net neutrality debate does NOT boil down to "who pays?" A simple internet search on "dark fiber" will show anyone that "tomorrow's internet" was built in the 1990s and that the fiber optic cables used for internet traffic today are a miniscule percentage of the total capacity of all the cable. Not to mention the fact that data compression technologies continue to advance, increasing the capacity of the cables all the time. This is another attempt by large corporations to frame a debate for an uneducated public and make it seem as if they are the ones being taken advantage of when once again it is consumers who will be fleeced. "Creaky internet," give me a break.
Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry argues that so-called "Net neutrality" would harm the Internet.