Neutrality Regulation In the Abstract

by on May 22, 2006 · 14 comments

There’s a great great post over at the abstract factory about the real issues in the debate over neutrality regulation. He points out that the horror stories trotted out by the pro-regulatory side are mostly bogus:

Political outfits–ranging from MoveOn to the Christian Coalition–are worried that network providers will begin to discriminate based on the political content of messages. This is pretty unlikely. It’s not easy for an algorithm to look at a bag of bytes and classify its political content; and network providers probably can’t pay for the computational power required to apply such an algorithm to the many terabytes of data that flow across their networks daily.

And even if they could, why would they? There’s no percentage there. In fact, I can think of two very strong reasons for them not to start filtering based on political content. First, there would be an enormous consumer backlash. Second, there would be enormous political fallout. The latter would include not only backlash against abuse of quasi-monopoly power, but possibly the imposition of responsibility for the content that flows across the pipes. Once you begin filtering based on political content, lawmakers may poke their heads in and wonder why you aren’t filtering out all that kiddie porn and gambling and such too–and if something gets through your filters, why can’t we hold you liable? The network providers don’t want to open that can of worms.

So, political censorship isn’t the real issue here. Nor, pace Moby et al., is it interconnection with small media providers versus large ones. Verizon’s not terribly likely to block access to your music blog. They might, someday, contract with certain service providers for improved performance. For example, they might strike a deal with iTunes to store songs in a local proxy cache, so that Verizon customers would observe slightly improved performance with iTunes, but not your music blog. That doesn’t strike me as either disastrous or a betrayal of the Internet’s principles. Networking researchers have been proposing schemes like this for years. In fact, Akamai’s basically a third-party version of this scheme: people pay them to store content in caches close to where it’s demanded, so Akamai-cached websites perform better than non-Akamai websites. Akamai’s been operating since 1999, and so far the Internet hasn’t been torn asunder.

He goes on to explain that the more plausible danger is discrimination on the basis of application–phone companies trying to block Skype because it cuts into their landline telephone business, for example. He’s quite right that the pronouncements of telco execs that Google needs to pay more for “my pipes” were assinine. Google pays for its own connection to the Internet. It’s consumers that pay the Baby Bells for the bandwidth they use. Telcos don’t connect their customers to the Internet out of the goodness of their hearts.

And his conclusion is also spot-on:

So I’m really glad that people are paying attention to network neutrality. But I’m also alarmed that so few of those people seem to understand what’s really going on here, and I’m skeptical that now is the time to make laws about it. So far, the Internet’s still neutral. My bottom-line recommendation would be to watch and wait.

He says other smart and sensible things as well, so go read the whole thing.

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