Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Net Neutrality and the Torah

In Uncategorized on December 22, 2010 at 8:58 am

I admit it. The net neutrality debate has me confused. On the one hand, there are the telecoms who want to be the gate keepers catering to those who can pay the most for premium services.  On the other hand, there are the merchants like Amazon, e-bay, and other retailers who want equal access without interference from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.

The Telecoms argue that since they either create or pay for the networks, that entitles them to be gate keepers. The FCC argument for regulating and restricting their role by not allowing for a two tier system i.e. premium services for a price as opposed to budget services is that it will inhibit the little guy from competing and deny poor people access to high quality internet.

As I understand it, most of the restrictions mandated by the FCC only apply to wired computers.  Right now, although, I am in my home, I am using a wireless network in my upstairs office.  This means that many of the FCC protections do not apply while they do apply to my wife’s wired computer downstairs. The difference is that the wires are owned by Verizon, while the wireless airwaves are owned by the public. It is a public/private partnership.  It is not unreasonable for the FCC to act in what it perceives is the public’s interest.  On the other hand, it should be that the FCC has more right to regulate wireless, than they do with wired computers.  There’s something smelly there.

In the Talmud, the phrase caveat emptor has no resonance. A bedrock business Talmudic principle is that anyone who unwittingly pays or sells an item that is one sixth over or under market value can nullify the sale. There are exceptions, but in most cases one can get his money back. This assures protection for both the merchant and the consumer.  According to one opinion, the percentage reflects how much one might be willing to overpay without feeling cheated. In other words, there should be an enforced level playing field upon which naive merchants and consumers alike can rely.

While we were sleeping, the telecoms managed to double dip and charge minutes for received calls. Even though in the land of landlines, the received long distance call was always free, all of the sudden, both the caller and the called were charged equally. There is no other country in the world that has this practice of double dipping. Because all companies charge for received calls, it is tantamount to a private  tax levied by the telecom giants that has forced people into plans that cost as much as fifty dollars a month more than they would have to pay if received calls didn’t count.

The internet was commandeered from early on by those who saw its unifying potential as a tool for breaking down barriers and for collaboration. The corprations came to the party very late, and have until recently been frustrated by not being able to harness the internet’s huge commercial potential. Now that they’re beginning to, they bring a not so enlightened self interest into the fray.  Google and Verizon want the Droid apps and their premium services to be the machers on the superhighway’s HOV lane while Amazon worries that the consumer will end up paying these “taxes” which may inhibit sales since third parties could potentially be not invited to the party.

The practices of the Telecom industry until now have been outrageous when it comes not only to fees, but to price structure as well.  If the world is the market for this utility, they have been overcharging well over one sixth the market value (try double), and have been laughing all the way to the bank.  In exchange, we already have expensive uneven access to a national broadband utility that places the US as 25th in the world.  Twenty-fifth? The digital divide within this country is another nail into the coffin of a failed education system. Left to the designs of the Telecoms, those who pay less will crawl so slowly that they may as well leave the grid.  The highway will have less traffic, and for those who have, things will never have been better.

  1. Just as a matter of interest. In the UK there is a law being proposed that would require people to register their ISP to receive pornographic content. I personally believe that this is a good idea but many people complain that it is coercive. I have for a long while suggested that all of these sites should have a separate set of call letters than www. (xxx. seems appropriate). That would make it very easy to screen out unwanted images. Do you have any thoughts on this?

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