With the failure of the amendment to the US Telecommunications Reform bill, itself a much diluted version of earlier amendments, it would seem that Net Neutrality is a dead legislative duck as far as Congress is concerned. But what is Net Neutrality, and why should anyone care?
The Internet is a network built entirely of ‘ends’ and as such it’s a pretty dumb thing: so dumb its super smart in fact. Anyone can provide anything at the edge of the network, you can put whatever you like at your ‘end’ by way of a website or service. The Internet itself just provides a method of shoving data from one end to another, regardless of who owns the network infrastructure in-between, regardless of the principality across which that data flows, regardless of if Telco A has an agreement with Telco B or Telco Z for that matter. All that does matter is that if you want to create or use a service online you can just do it. Net neutrality ensures that the Internet is operated using the triumvirate of non-discrimination, interconnection and access.
Basically then, what we are talking about is the separation of network architecture and content. You should be able to visit any online retailer to do your shopping, not just the ones your broadband provider has an affiliate deal with. You should be able to use that Internet connection for whatever (legal) purpose you choose, not just the ones your ISP approves of. So if you want to make cheap international telephone calls using VoIP across your Telco operated broadband connectivity service, you should jolly well be able to.
The problem is that the Telco, losing bottom line hand over fist because customers are switching to low cost/no cost Internet telephony services, might not think that is fair. And if you take a minute to reflect upon this, you might think that they have a point. With all the value of the Internet (the content) at the edges of the network, it’s only natural that the connectivity which provides a conduit for that content should want to commoditize itself. This is fine, apart from the fact that there’s not enough money in it. Or rather, there’s more money that can be squeezed out of it if your provide content and services as well as connectivity. And there’s even more money in it if you allow some content to have a greater priority to travel than others. By doing away with this principle of bit-parity, removing the non-discrimination principle from Net Neutrality, the Telco can charge premium rates and improve their bottom line.
The Telco will argue, and the big ones have successfully done just that through a multi-million dollar lobby to ensure the Net Neutrality amendment is sunk, that they are the heart and veins of the Internet. Without them there would be no means for the blood to travel around it, without them the Internet would die, and without the right to apply business models as they see fit in order to fund investment in technological development it will do just that. Let the law decide who they can deal with, how they can deal with them, and what they can charge and their business is made impotent.
But as in all ‘yah, boo, sulk’ driven arguments, that same Telco will probably conveniently forget that it’s not your fault that they are slower to react to technological change than a dinosaur on Prozac. Actually, let me correct that statement: they are slower to react when all they see through their old-business-thinking specs is massive investment coupled to less revenue. Perhaps it is unfair to lambaste the Telco so, after all most companies that find themselves in a near monopolistic environment for an extended period turn into lumbering clueless dinosaurs. Because they are so used to raking the profit in through near monopolistic control of the infrastructure, they are unable to see the bigger Internet picture and so react in the same way as any bully, by claiming ‘I’m bigger than you, do what I say’. Or, in the words of AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre “They don’t have any fibre out there. They don’t have any wires. For a Google or a Yahoo or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!
So why has the Net Neutrality bid failed? There was certainly enough support from the big names of online content, with Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! all behind the amendment. Of course, they would be because they are the ones making all the money out of content and services right now, at the edges of the network. Then there were the various campaigns which, while having the right motivation, went about things in an incredibly naïve and paranoiac manner. By producing amendments that specified a mind boggling depth of detail, right down to minimum bandwidth requirements at the Kbps level, they ensured that the FTC wouldn’t take them seriously. And by throwing the 1st Amendment argument into the ring, they seriously eroded credibility in my never humble opinion.
What was really required here was some kind of logical compromise that would enable the kind of carrier control that improves the quality of service to the end user without giving that carrier free reign. Everyone pretty much agrees that they should have the right to block spam, virus and malware traffic. So why not the right to combine a tiered service where traffic such as VoIP that requires more bandwidth is given priority over file downloading for example? Why not the right to police their own network as long they aren’t policing the inter-network? This kind of compromise has worked well enough in the UK and South Korea for example. Certainly in the UK, where carriers are allowed to limit the bandwidth used by P2P file sharing applications, by way of bandwidth caps on ISP contracts that reduce the transfer rate once the set limit has been reached in any given month, it hasn’t led to the demise of the Internet.
There is also an understandable body of feeling that says the US Internet at least operates in a market driven economy and if you don’t like the charges your ISP makes, or some tiered service premium content delivery scheme it conjures up in the future, then you can easily move to another more to your liking. But this ‘the market has a voice and will shout loudest’ argument assumes that there will always be a choice of provider, or more to the point a choice of providers who are not all doing the same thing. If economic history has taught us one thing then surely it is that mega-corporations in an unregulated and near monopolistic marketplace will happily collude in order to make the greatest corporate profit.
At its most basic you need to remember that the thing that makes the Internet work is a set of protocols, TCP/IP to be precise, and the very definition of a protocol is an agreement, a set of rules, a code of behaviour. Why should there not be an agreement regarding Net Neutrality? Without it there is, I feel, a very real danger that the free market the Internet has created for technological innovation will be stifled. The Telco may argue that they are the heart of the Internet, but they are not its soul. While currently the Internet will interpret censorship as damage and route around it, the Internet of tomorrow may be much less forgiving and much the worse place as result.