Is There an Openness-Bandwidth Trade-off?

by on May 28, 2008 · 17 comments

weitzner-sm I’ve long known and liked Danny Weitzner, going way back to the CDA wars of the mid-1990s. Danny co-founded the Center for Democracy & Technology, which is were I first met him, and he currently serves as Co-Director of MIT’s Decentralized Information Group, which is part of the computer science department up there. Apparently he is also now serving as technology adviser to the Barack Obama campaign. In it is that capacity he made some remarks recently on a panel at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference that caught my eye. Specifically, according to this Ars article:

“Openness is more important than bandwidth,” said Weitzner, referring to the argument that “tiered” networks providing faster access to content providers who can pay could spur investment in fatter pipes. “I’d rather have a more open Internet at lower speeds than a faster Internet that has all sorts of discrimination built in. We’ve lived with tiny narrow little pipes and done extraordinary things with them.”

I’m a bit troubled by Danny’s statements. First, I think that many supporters of Net neutrality (NN) regulation have been crafting this sort of false choice between openness and bandwidth. I see no reason why we can’t have plenty of openness as bandwidth grows. After all, it is openness to new services and applications that will help spur greater demand for bandwidth. Of course, I don’t buy into the sort of conspiratorial theories set forth by some NN advocates who claim that broadband providers are going to engage in all sorts of blocking of online speech and applications. If you subscribe to certain ‘black helicopter’ theories of ISP manipulation of the Net, however, then I suppose you would be inclined to say we might somehow be better off with “tiny narrow little pipes” (a la dial-up connections) instead of high-speed pipes. But, again, I just don’t buy the argument that ISPs are out to quash “openness” in that sense. Assuming they could even succeed in such an endeavor, which is highly dubious, it’s just not good for business. It would create a huge consumer backlash, a PR hell, and ultimately not bring in any new revenue.

Now, it’s a very different matter if you define price discrimination and network management as forms of “digital discrimination” that should be made illegal by Net neutrality regulations. In this case, unfettered “openness”—which would apparently be defined such that pricing flexibility and network optimization were violations of FCC regs—might very well come into conflict with bandwidth expansion. Bandwidth is not unlimited, and growing the pie might require some forms of network management and price discrimination be used to ensure that America’s growing broadband needs are met. After all, most average broadband customers today are not griping about any lack of online openness; they can get to any service they want. Instead, they are generally complaining about broadband speeds not being quick enough to support all those fancy new services they have access to.

And so I wonder, how many folks would actually agree with Danny Weitzner’s statement that, “I’d rather have a more open Internet at lower speeds than a faster Internet that has all sorts of discrimination built in.” If that’s the trade-off that’s being forced upon us, then I will take the faster Internet, thank you very much. But I’d rather not have FCC bureaucrats involved in making this decisions for us at all.

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