It's odd to hear people in an industry that exists because of government regulation argue against government regulation and for the free market. And yet that's exactly what happens when telcos and cable television vendors argue against net neutrality regulations, which would forbid them from giving preferential treatment to Internet traffic for companies that pay for the privilege.
Telcos and the cable TV industry don't exist in the vicious jungle of the free market. They live a protected existence, in partnership with government. Their businesses wouldn't exist if not for government regulation granting these companies the right to supersede the rules of private property and lay their cables through other people's land. Communities give cable TV companies monopoly rights to be the only vendor offering service in an area.
So it's hypocritical when companies that owe their very existence to government regulation scream bloody murder about the holiness of the free market when they're faced with the prospect of government regulation that doesn't suit them.
That's not the only bogus argument raised by Internet providers against net neutrality. Telcos and cable companies argue that content companies like Google and YouTube (and, um, InformationWeek's parent company, CMP Media) are freeloaders, using the Internet providers' bandwidth without paying. It's an argument that makes any reasonable person scratch his head and say, "Huh?" The relationship between content companies and Internet providers is symbiotic; people get high-speed Internet connections so they can access content. An Internet connection without content is as useless as a highway with no exits. Nobody drives on the interstate just to drive somewhere. They use the highway to get where they're going.
Moreover, content companies--like us, Google, and YouTube--already pay, and pay a lot, for Internet access. Why should we have to pay twice?
It may surprise you, having read this far, that I'm quite simply undecided on the issue of regulating net neutrality. It's one of those issues that we editorial writers hate because there's good arguments on both sides. But if we're going to discuss the issue, let's discuss it fairly, without bogus appeals to the sanctity of the free market and scare stories about ee-vial, ee-vial government regulation.
Cory Doctorow isn't undecided; he believes net neutrality is essential to the future of the Internet. Cory explores these themes further in his very first article for InformationWeek. One intriguing point Cory brings up: Writing a law protecting net neutrality will be difficult. Do it wrong, and you run the risk of stifling innovation. A very badly written law might actually destroy net neutrality, rather than save it. (I'm particularly sensitive to the latter argument, considering how the CAN-SPAM law not only fails to limit spam, but it downright encourages it.)
I've known Cory since he was a wee sprite; we were active together on the Science Fiction RoundTable of the GEnie online service back around 1990. Back then, Cory was a teenager, and he already distinguished himself as one of the brightest science fiction fans around--and that's not easy, as science fiction fans are an extremely intelligent bunch. And Cory also stood out for his good-natured personality. Cory was and is a charming fellow, which distinguished him among science fiction fans, who are, personality-wise... Well, have I mentioned how intelligent most science fiction fans are?
I continued watching Cory's career as he became co-author of the wildly popular and eclectic Boing Boing blog, became an accomplished science fiction writer, and outreach coordinator with the Internet activist group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where he got involved with a variety of online civil liberties fights. Most recently, he's been active speaking out against abuses of copyright law.
I finally got a chance to meet Cory face-to-face last year when he came to San Diego on business, and I hope to see more of him, as he's taking a position as Fulbright Chair at the Annenberg Public Diplomacy Center at the University of Southern California, where he'll be working more on copyright and DRM issues.
The InformationWeek editorial staff is by no means in agreement on net neutrality. Editor-in-chief Rob Preston argued in a recent column that creating fast lanes for paying customers won't harm innovation on the Internet. Like high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on highways, Internet fast lanes will speed up traffic for everyone, Rob says. And columnist Eric Hall says the FCC already has the authority to regulate Internet fast lanes; Congressional laws would simply add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.
If you like science fiction, give Cory's novels and short stories a try; they're some of the best science fiction being written today. I'm particularly fond of "Somebody Comes To Town, Somebody Leaves Town," "Eastern Standard Tribe," and the short-story collection "A Place So Foreign And Eight More." You can buy them from your favorite virtual or real-world bookstore, or download the novels and many of the short stories free.
What do you think? Should telcos, cable modem companies, and other Internet service providers, protect net neutrality, or should they be allowed to give preferential treatment to traffic from customers who pay a premium for it? Should net neutrality be preserved? If so, is passing new laws the answer, and how should those laws be written?