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6/23/2006
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Opinion: Protecting Net Neutrality From The Neutricidal Telcos

The Internet community needs to force regulators to preserve net neutrality. But it'll be tricky to write laws that define net neutrality without destroying what they're trying to protect, says Internet activist Cory Doctorow.

Once you strip away all the high-minded talk, the burning network neutrality issue comes down to this: How can we stop phone companies from committing "neutricide"--destruction of the neutrality of the Internet?


Internet activist Cory Doctorow

Internet activist Cory Doctorow


Photo by Bart Nagel
Phone and cable companies are looking for the right to charge popular Internet sites like Google and Yahoo to carry data to customers. The big Internet companies, they argue, are getting a free ride, using lots of bandwidth to get to customers and not paying a fair price for it. This will only get worse, they say, as multimedia content becomes more popular, demanding more bandwidth.

This argument is rubbish. Internet companies already are paying for bandwidth from their providers, often the same companies that want to charge them yet again under their new proposals. And for these providers to be screaming for the protection of the free market is sheer hypocrisy--they themselves are creatures of government regulation, basing their business on government-granted extraordinary privileges.

Something must be done to protect net neutrality from phone and cable companies seeking to commit neutricide. These companies must be required to grant equal access to the Internet for all traffic. But these regulations will be tricky to write. Done badly, they'll stifle the competition they're trying to protect.

Why does network neutrality need protecting? Craigslist co-founder Craig Newmark addressed this point in an editorial he wrote for CNN.com: "Let's say you call Joe's Pizza, and the first thing you hear is a message saying you'll be connected in a minute or two, but if you want, you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That's not fair, right? You called Joe's and want some Joe's pizza."

It's a dumb idea to put the plumbers who laid a pipe in charge of who gets to use it. It's a way to ensure that incumbents with the deepest pockets will always be able to deliver a better service to the public, simply by degrading the quality of everyone else's offerings. If you want to ensure that no one ever gets to creatively destroy an industry the way that Amazon, eBay, Google, Yahoo, and others have done, just make paying rent to a phone company a prerequisite for doing business.

Practically everyone agrees on this. Only the carriers oppose it, and their opposition is so lame it'd be funny if it wasn't so scary. The core argument from the carriers is that Google and other Internet companies get a "free ride" on their pipes. AT&T and others take the position that if you look up a search result or stream a video from Google using your DSL connection, Google profits, but the carriers don't get a share of the proceeds.

That's wrong.

Corporate Welfare Bums
This lame argument has been rebutted many times, but rarely so elegantly as in this humorous, imaginary dialog between a father and son 13 years in the future. As the dialogue points out, Google and other Internet companies are already paying for high-bandwidth connections and datacenters to run their projects.

Tom Giovanetti, president of the think-tank the Institute for Policy Innovation, writes an ill-informed rant about the fallout of a neutral net, espousing the belief that unless the telcos are given the power to pick the Internet's winners and losers, the Internet will be so overwhelmed with amateur creativity that all the legitimate businesses will find themselves unable to provide a high-enough-quality service to command subscription fees, and the whole thing will collapse. Even police and fire services will be jeopardized, Giovanetti claims.

But Gary Bachula, a VP at the entity that oversees Internet2, the most important, best-developed experimental Internet site in the world, takes just the opposite approach. Here's some of Bachula's Senate testimony on the subject, as reported on Salon:

"[O]ur engineers started with the assumption that we should find technical ways of prioritizing certain kinds of bits, such as streaming video, or video conferencing, in order to assure that they arrive without delay. As it developed, though, all of our research and practical experience supported the conclusion that it was far more cost effective to simply provide more bandwidth. With enough bandwidth in the network, there is no congestion and video bits do not need preferential treatment."

Hands Off the Internet, an anti-net-neutrality organization (with a domain name registered to a PR firm specializing in telcos), argues that the government shouldn't regulate the Internet, and any regulation that forbade the telcos from sticking toll-roads on their pipes would be undue interference into the free market for last-mile wires.

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