Hatch and DeMint: Gatekeepers, Not Government.

Today's op-ed from Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jim DeMint against net neutrality is strange all the way through, but one part in particular jumps out:

If there is a perfect encapsulation of the success of Washington's current hands-off approach to the Internet, it's the popular "There's an app for that" advertising campaign. Since the latest introduction of smart phones like Apple's iPhone and Blackberry's Curve, independent software developers have created tens of thousands of applications for mobile devices. There are apps for gamers, bloggers, couch potatoes, foodies, health-care providers and every other niche market you can imagine. These applications have improved people's lives and satisfied consumer demand.

Now, there are a lot of substantive arguments you can make about why it doesn't make sense for the Federal Communications Commission to codify net neutrality regulation right at this moment in time. But celebrating the Apple iTunes App Store is a particularly curious one.

As a business model, the iTunes store has a lot going for it. We users like it because we can get access to apps for our iPhones without worrying about the muss and fuss of dealing with different vendors, secure in the knowledge that the apps have been vetted by Apple's crack team. And independent software developers have an incentive to sell their wares there because, after they pay a $100 fee, they can focus on developing software and letting Apple act as their representative -- handling payments (while taking a 30 percent slice) and taking care of promotion that bundles independent apps in one well-visited marketplace. This all makes it more likely that your genius $.99 SkeeBall app is going to find its audience. As consumers, we make the trade-off between Apple acting as the gatekeeper and the benefits we get from having a controlled experience. Apple has found a successful way to match supply and demand while doing quite well for themselves. The Apple iTunes App Store is a triumph of business innovation.

But man, what the iTunes Store is not is the Internet. Or more accurately, it's really, really, not the World Wide Web, that manifestation of the Internet that many of us know and enjoy as a freewheeling medium and marketplace. Apple Inc. is wholly and completely the gatekeeper, approving and rejecting products submitted to them for whatever reasons they see fit in a process that by Apple's own admission can be opaque and drag on for weeks and months. Programmers, no matter if they're Joe Schmoe or the Google Voice team, are at the mercy of Apple, having to pass each iteration of their software by a corporate approval board. That's their choice. That's our choice. It's a tiny corner of the Internet where we've all agreed to abide by certain rules. But it's more or less the opposite of the open and neutral platform for innovation that the Internet as a whole is.

For now. Even those people who are opposed to the FCC regulating neutrality don't promote the idea that the Internet should turn into a 7-Eleven, where Comcast or AT&T or whoever decides what goes on the shelves. They just say that it's unlikely to happen. Now, you might say, these two senators are just clumsily gloaming on the hot technology of the moment -- iPhones! -- to make their case. But the scarier thought is that there is some Senate communications policy staffer here who doesn't appreciate the rather important difference between the iTunes store and the Web.

--Nancy Scola

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