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5/25/2007
02:02 PM
Richard Martin
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Net Neutrality Debate, Part 2

I expected my blog on net neutrality to draw plenty of flames, and I was right. In this new post I'll round up the arguments that readers have expressed in favor of net neutrality, respond briefly, and hopefully point the debate in a new direction. I can summarize the objections to my stance - that the price of access to privately owned networks ought to be determined by economics, not idealism - in fou

I expected my blog on net neutrality to draw plenty of flames, and I was right. In this new post I'll round up the arguments that readers have expressed in favor of net neutrality, respond briefly, and hopefully point the debate in a new direction. I can summarize the objections to my stance - that the price of access to privately owned networks ought to be determined by economics, not idealism - in four main categories: a) I'm a moron who doesn't understand the term "net neutrality" in the first place; b) we already pay for bandwidth, and adding premium pricing for heavy usage would be double-dipping, or even worse a form of Net taxation (shudder); c) there is no free market for network access because the telcos are greedy, evil, and mendacious; and d) I'm just a moron.The last argument I can't refute here, but I do actually understand net neutrality. Those commenters who pointed out that the higher pricing usually applies to providers of content rather than consumers are right, and I should have made that clearer. But this is a distinction without a difference: I'm talking about network providers (ISPs, telcos, etc.) being able to charge more based on level of usage. Whether they charge the providers or consumers is immaterial because eventually the higher cost will be passed on to the consumer one way or another. If Apple had to pay extra because of the bandwidth used by iTunes, don't you think it would raise the 99-cent-per-song price?

The advocates of a nationwide "Internet Freedom" bill often say that providers who can't afford to pay the "steep surcharges" that ISPs would charge in a non-neutral world would be out of luck. I don't quite buy that: there's always someone willing and able to offer low-cost service, and the vast majority of content providers including free-form video download sites like YouTube are currently able to get the access and the storage they require, even as new network and storage technologies for much higher amounts of data explode. Why is legislation required to protect them?

Many pointed out that Apple is already paying more for its network access, and so do customers who sign up for, say, a high-speed cable connection rather than dial-up. This is true, as far as it goes; networks are neutral now in that you purchase a certain amount of capacity (say, 1 Mbit/s over a cable connection, or in the case of Google multiple terabytes of network capacity) and how you use that is up to you. Certain types of Internet service are indeed metered, in the sense that you pay more over a certain bandwidth limit; but right now the typical broadband connection is a flat-rate, always-on package with certain capacity estimates, guaranteed or otherwise. What could be more neutral?

"It seems that most believe that we have Net Neutrality already," the sensible Gordon responded to my blog. "I don't see the need for legislation at this time."

Indeed, the free market is at work in the capital markets, where high-volume traders requiring huge amounts of bandwidth and lightning-fast response times are paying top dollar for those services. In a world of enforced net neutrality and undifferentiated pricing, do you think vendors would come up with these types of innovative solutions?

The third objection boils down to the idea that network providers, particularly the major telcos, will strike deals for certain types of content and restrict access to those outside their circle of partners (or those they just don't like whatever the reason). This was expressed by John T., who extended the highway analogy: "What if the tool booth decided to charge the truck an additional fee based on what was INSIDE his truck (more for gold bullion, less for chicken feathers, for example) while providing NO additional benefit to the truck driver?"

This is the most serious possibility to my mind. If network providers begin restricting certain types of content from certain providers, then indeed we would no longer have an open and free Internet. But, again, history demonstrates that market forces will always favor those ISPs that allow free and unfettered Internet access to both providers and to consumers. Net neutrality should be left up to those economic forces, not handed over to politicians who don't even have a computer terminal on their desk.

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