Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Holes in the Net: Net Neutrality Coalition Wanes As Portals and Platforms Seek Roles

CNET News reports in the past tense on the net neutrality movement, the effort by a coalition of online publishers and technology companies to keep U.S. telecommunications companies from charging different rates for Internet access based on arrangements with content partners. CNET notes that in the wake of last year's successes in stalling changes to current policies and new focus on carving up the 700 MHz radio spectrum for wireless broadband access the movement has become fragmented. The original "It's Our Net" group has reformed as the Open Internet Coalition, trimmed down from 148 to 74 members, with major technology and portal players such as Microsoft and Yahoo out of the picture. Notably Apple was never a part of this coalition, a fact underscored by its interests in acting as a "toll gate" of its own sort as it uses its iPod and iPhone proprietary platforms to pressure media companies into price cuts for premium content.

All of this could be relatively moot except that while legislators and companies may be focused on other things the communications companies who have so much at stake have certainly not forgotten their original goals in opposing net neutrality. In a parting gift to communications companies outgoing U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales filed an ex parte filing (PDF) with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission suggesting that net neutrality regulations were not necessary to ensure open competition. The absence of Yahoo and Microsoft from the coalition and their advancing plans to develop premium content services may also imply that they see themselves becoming more like Apple and being able to dictate content pricing and licensing terms to a broader array of content providers through alliances with communications companies.

In the bigger picture, then, the fight for neutral access to publications over public infrastructure
is far from over and in fact widening with the 700 MHz spectrum also in play. In all of this traditional publishers have been largely in the background, with no apparent major role in the lobbying efforts. This seems to be wishful thinking at best, akin to the efforts of publishers to ignore the Web in its early days, but now only worse since such a large percentage of their growth depends on it. The New York Times reported dwindling revenues from their ever-smaller print editions yet a 28 percent increase in online revenues, to cite one example of robust online revenue growth. If there were a chance that newsprint or mailing costs would go up publishers would be all over it: why do they ignore potential regulations that may have a huge impact on the profit margins of their most promising new source of revenues?

In the meantime the opting out of Microsoft and Yahoo from the net neutrality movement and the non-participation of Apple points towards what many publishers hope: that a handful of major portals can help along with communications providers to re-create the cable television model and create a brand advertising Nirvana where consumers behave as they ought to and pay for premium access. Yet with user-generated content and search engines providing more context for content than ever before it's not clear why consumers will be persuaded easily to opt for being charged premium prices for access to specific sources when flat-rate access has been such a successful way for them to determine for themselves what's worthwhile content.

In largely ignoring the net neutrality debate publishers' hopes for controlled access are more likely to fall prey to communications companies and portals who will take higher percentages of their revenues from their online content through access channels that are not optimized for audience growth and that will give them less autonomy on pricing. The open Web may be a bit more of a wild and wooly place for some publishers but for those that have embraced it most efficiently it has been the most promising revenue and profit driver in an era where many channels are becoming far leaner and meaner. It's time for publishers to think about what's really in their best long-term interests and to begin to embrace net neutrality as an essential component for both audience and margin growth.
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