Why net neutrality matters.

I’ve written before (also here) about network neutrality as I believe it is one of the most important aspects of legislative policy that affects billions of people, yet has been largely ignored, as were the DMCA and ECD before it. After discussing this with a friend, I decided it’s probably time to write a bit more about it. Net neutrality is the policy that requires network operators to not discriminate on application providers by shaping/controlling the traffic that passes through their networks. Less than a year ago the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Committee) removed a part of their regulations that ensured network neutrality among network providers. This has, in turn, led to a number of prominent social, industry, academia and political figures voicing their concerns about the prospect of a multi-tier internet, a network where operators discriminate between users and service providers. Similarly, traditionally ‘liberal’ organisations and individuals cried foul at any attempts to enforce legislation about it, claiming that it is unconstitutional and limits the freedom of the internet industry.

While I am against excessive government intervention in general, I believe this is a case where it is not just warranted, but essential. This is not about intervention. This is about the fair regulation of a utility. Perhaps the most important utility of them all: the internet. A medium of expression, communication, freedom of speech, innovation. In this article I will try to explain why I believe that attacks against network neutrality in the name of liberty are either hypocritical or naive.

Imagine an internet where the norm would prevent a startup to compete with established players due to traffic (or QoS) starvation. Network discrimination would mean that services like Flickr, Skype, or even Google in its early steps, e.g. back in ’99, would have a very hard time making money and reaching people and might not have existed at all. And this would mean that established players, such as Google (today), Yahoo! and Microsoft, would eventually be granted an unlimited reign over services. This additional ‘toll’ would starve innovation quite rapidly. Although established application provision players would not mind this too much, they are in favour of such legislation. Even the largest internet application providers including Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, Microsoft, Ebay and many others are advocates of network neutrality. Wondered why? A Multi-tiered internet would place all involved with the internet at the mercy of the very few, global network operators.

In effect, the lack of regulations enforcing network neutrality might result in a status quo, not defined or chosen by people or society, but by the very few network provision giants and their huge business partners. Network provision today is an oligopoly and in many areas of the world a monopoly. A multi-tier internet would not benefit either the end-users or the vast majority of internet related enterprises. It would actually hurt the industry and society.

Now, why would any network operator wish to get rid of network neutrality? Don’t they make money? Yes, they do. All trunk/backbone network operators make money. Lots of it. By the MB. The ISPs pay them. And consumers pay the ISPs. Application providers are essentially ISP customers too. Today. The situation seems fair for all involved. So why then did Edward Whitacre, back in December 2005 cry that all those application providers were using ‘his pipes for free’? (I wrote about this in my February article here) After the noise that this statement caused why did he, then, in March 2006 state that:

AT&T will not block or degrade traffic, period,” he said. “And we won’t change (our position) no matter what sky-is-falling rhetoric you hear. Markets work best when consumers have choices.

Unfortunately, the network operator market is definitely lacking choice, be it for ISPs or consumers. In most regions in the U.S. the number of operators is usually less than 3. In Europe the number is much lower, with most of the continent being served by 4-5 large backbone operators. Why does then Whitacre’s statement appear so frivolous? If his company is never going to discriminate why would he mind legislation to that effect?

By removing FCC’s power to act in case of discrimination, and lacking legislation protecting network neutrality, one is then is forced to count on Whitacre’s statement. And, judging by his position and role, I feel it is insufficient.

There has been a lot of spin with regards to the importance and effects of net neutrality. I can only classify its critics as naive ‘liberals’ (who probably ignore the true meaning of the word liberty and have clearly missed the point here) and greedy network operators. The former have replayed that old tape about ‘government intervention’, ‘limits to free enterprise’ and so on, while failing to acknowledge the need for a healthy marketplace. The latter have largely kept quiet, with the exception of Whitacre’s less than ingenious statements these past six months. The invocation of liberty when attacking network neutrality would probably be mildly amusing if it weren’t so absurd, or dangeous. A free market requires assurance as to network neutrality in order to enable companies to provide services rather than paychecks to overly greedy oligopolists. Ryan Paul in ArsTechnica explains why net neutrality is not bad from the liberal point of view, while at the same time he mentions the massive subsidies that those same companies now asking for more money get, for practicallly nothing in return, and how many attackers of network neutrality have completely missed the point.

In one word, network neutrality is freedom on the net. And, I, along with many millions of people not involved with AT&T and its friends would certainly hate to lose it.

There’s a lot of info about Freedom online here

2 Responses to “Why net neutrality matters.”

  1. Νικόλας says:

    I am amazed that such legislation has not already gone through. It is, in a sense, like allowing EYDAP to charge more -or restrict access- for water extracted from Trihonida rather than from Iliki.

    What’s the situation in the UK?

  2. cosmix says:

    I am afraid I have no idea about such legislation in the UK or Europe in general, although judging by the relatively young age of the internet it is quite probable that there is none.

    It is at least of some concern to me that important legislation can go into force (or be completely absent) for important issues and most people have no idea, until it is too late.

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