Google’s Now Makes Network Management Transparent—So Why Mandate Net Neutrality?

by on January 29, 2009 · 11 comments

Google has—as I noted it would last June—finally released (PCWorld, Google’s policy blog)  its eagerly-awaited suite of tools available for free (of course) at that allow users to monitor how their ISP might be tweaking (degrading, deprioritizing, etc.) their traffic—among other handy features.  Huzzah!

So, now that we have visibility into traffic management practices on a large scale, remind me again why the FCC would need to mandate “net neutrality” requirements?  Why not just leave the matter up to the FTC to enforce each ISP’s terms of use under the agency’s existing authority to punish unfair and deceptive trade practices?  Won’t the threat of users switching to another broadband provider discipline ISPs’ traffic management?  (As long as ISPs have traffic nationwide traffic management policies, even those users in areas lacking meaningful broadband competition will be protected from discriminatory network management practices by pressure in other markets.)

“If you believe that network neutrality government regulation is not needed, if you believe that the market will handle this … then you should also welcome Measurement Labs,” [Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy director Ed] Felten said. “What you are appealing to is a process of public discussion … in which consumers move to the ISP [Internet service provider] that gives them the best performance. It’s a market that’s facilitated by better information.”

Yes, it’s true (as PCWorld article linked to above points out) that a consumer might not be able to discern whether apparent degradation of their traffic was actually caused by the ISP or whether it might be the result of, say, spyware or simple Internet congestion.  But they don’t need to figure that out for themselves.  Although the relatively small percentage of users who install this tool are likely to be highly sophisticated (at least the early adopters), all they need to is “sound the alarm” about what they think might be a serious violation of “net neutrality” principles, and a small cadre of technical experts can do the rest:  examining these allegations to determine what ISPs are actually doing.  

Sure, there will be false alarms and of course many advocates of “net neutrality” regulation will still insist that ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to practice certain kinds of network management, no matter how transparently the ISPs might disclose their practices.  But the truth will emerge, and in the ongoing tug-of-war between public pressure and ISPs’ practical needs to manage their networks smartly, between the desire of some to have practices disclosed very specifically and the ISPs’ desire to maintain operational flexibility, I suspect we’ll find a relatively stable (if constantly-evolving) equilibrium.  It won’t be perfect, but do we really think government bureaucrats will do a better job of finding that happy medium?

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