2010: The Year of “Everything Neutrality”

by on December 28, 2009 · 8 comments

As early as 1990, telecom industry observers speculated about the shift away from traditional circuit-switched telephony to “Voice Over IP” (VoIP). By the late 1990s, Internet industry observers began using the term “Everything Over IP” (VoIP) to describe the ongoing and seemingly inevitable shift towards Internet distribution of not just voice, but all forms of, audio, text and multi-media content. Today, term has become a victim of its own success:  “Of course, ‘everything’ is delivered over IP. How else would you do it?”

While this capitalist success story is among the greatest technological triumphs of our time, a similar rhetorical pattern is, unfortunately, playing out in very different arena of Regulatory Creep. The crusade for “net neutrality”  is metastasizing before our very eyes into a broader holy war for regulating “Everything” (EoIP) in the name of “protecting neutrality.” The next target is clear: search engines Google—as an op-ed in today’s New York Times makes crystal clear. Adam Thierer and I warned about this escalation of efforts to get government more involved in regulating Internet back in October in a PFF paper entitled Net Neutrality, Slippery Slopes & High-Tech Mutually Assured Destruction:

If Internet regulation follows the same course as other industries, the FCC and/or lawmakers will eventually indulge calls by all sides to bring more providers and technologies “into the regulatory fold.” Clearly, this process has already begun. Even before rules are on the books, the companies that have made America the leader in the Digital Revolution are turning on each other in a dangerous game of brinksmanship, escalating demands for regulation and playing right into the hands of those who want to bring the entire high-tech sector under the thumb of government—under an Orwellian conception of “Internet Freedom” that makes corporations the real Big Brother, and government, our savior.

Today’s editorial is only small dose of what’s to come. The floodgates will really open and let forth a great gushing rage of demands for sweeping regulation of the entire Internet under the banner of neutrality when the deadlines pass in the FCC’s “net neutrality” NPRM (comments due January 14, 2010; reply comments due March 5). It will be interesting to see how many advocates of net neutrality regulations “go for broke” by calling for broad neutrality mandates.  The more cautious ones will try to maintain the fiction that their “gatekeeper” arguments pertain only to ISPs, and not to players at applications layer of the Internet. But as the works of net neutrality theoreticians, “gatekeepers” lurk behind every digital corner on every layer of the Internet. Common carriage regulation for all!

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I predict that technology policy debates in 2010 will be increasingly dominated by this kind of thinking, as the clash of philosophical principles at stake becomes ever more stark—and the companies involved increasingly turn on each other in a pattern of Mutually Assured Destruction—to the great detriment of consumers, innovation and the future of the Internet.

Jim Harper has already noted some of the criticism of the Times editorial, but the snarkiest-and-yet-most-substantive response to the specific allegations raised comes from Paul Kedrosky:

There is a quack, self-serving, and silly search-related OpEd in Monday’s NY Times that would be amusing, if it weren’t so indelibly dumb. In it the founder of a company, Foundem, in the search business alleges that search company Google should be investigated and forced to do a better job of highlighting firms like his….

The NY Times has run a silly editorial by a self-interested search company founder who would like his site to get more traffic, but hasn’t gone to the trouble of building something useful. The only scandal I see here is that apparently NY Times OpEds over the holidays are vetted by malnourished monkeys.

Here are a few other pieces Adam and I have written on this issue:

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