When Good Analogies Go Bad

by on April 3, 2007

There’s been a big to-do the last few days over Craig Newmark’s article analogizing network neutrality to your ability to call the pizza joint of your choice without interference by your phone company. Cory, Julian, Ezra, and Tom all weighed in. Julian thinks that this scenario isn’t so problematic because companies can already buy extra phone lines to help their customers get through faster. Ezra insists that companies should be competing on the basis of pizza quality and delivery time, not their ability to shop for telecommunications services.

The thing I find frustrating about this discussion is that the usefulness of an analogy depends crucially on its similarity to the real world. And in this case, the pro-regulatory side has been so vague about what the real-world fear is that we can’t even begin evaluating whose analogy is more apt. Tom begins to get at this when he encourages us to differentiate between changes designed to make the network work better and changes that are simply designed to extort more money out of application service providers. An even better reaction is this post by son1:

Even if you believed it would work like this… all that would happen would be that middle-men would be set up (either by the large content providers, by the large ISPs, by both, or by a third party) where there’d be some kind of clearinghouse for fees like this. “Don’t pay every ISP in existence to carry your content on their premium channels — just pay us, and we’ll distribute your money in an optimal way,” or something.

Rather than speculating about vague analogies to wildly dissimilar telecom technologies, a more productive approach to discussing the subject is to try to figure out what real-world network discrimination would look like. The standard story has a snidely whiplash character to it, with the small website operator playing the role of the helpless damsel in distress being tied to the railroad tracks. But in fact, website operators are likely to have various strategies available to them to either dissuade the telcos from discriminating in the first place, or to mitigate the harms of discrimination should it occur.

I suspect that part of the reason that the pro-regulatory side likes to resort to silly analogies and wildly implausible horror stories in making their case: when you try to pin down precisely what their worst-case scenario would look like, you often find that it’s either extremely implausible or not especially frightening. Or, even more frequently, they haven’t given any thought to the details at all. They’ve built the telcos up into such menacing villains that they assume they’ll implement the worst imaginable discrimination scheme and that they have so much negotiating power that they’ll have no trouble shoving it down the throats of the rest of the Internet.

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