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Do We Want Net Neutrality? April 9, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy.
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We have an ideal of an online world in which the transport mechanism is simply a pipe that transmits any and all data in first-come, first-served priority.  In a nutshell, that is net neutrality.

But since 1990 when the US government commercialized what was at the time ARPANET, much of the Internet backbone has come to be owned by commercial entities.  Further, the “last mile” to the home (or the business) is also commercially owned, by telephone companies or cable companies.

The commercialization of the Internet has been the most important reason for its growth in access and importance over the last 20 years.

I first glommed on to David Isenberg in 1996, shortly after his seminal paper “The Rise of the Stupid Network.”  If you haven’t read it yet, and are interested in this topic, do so now (I’ll wait for you to finish).  The stupid network is one that simply transports packets with no preconceived information on the value of the packets.  There is no intelligence within the network infrastructure to prioritize or filter based on set criteria.  The network itself is stupid, it’s just that the endpoints are smart enough to know what to do with those packets.

I think this best defines the concept of net neutrality.  It sounds like it’s a good thing, but the commercialization of the Internet complicates it.

A federal appeals court panel earlier this week ruled that the Federal Communications Commission overstepped its authority when it told Comcast it could not filter BitTorrent packets.  The implication seems to be that the courts are waiting for Congress to explicitly say that net neutrality is something it wants, and to back it up with laws to that effect.

The problem is that it’s difficult to reconcile commercial ownership with a public good.  Should Congress come down firmly in support of net neutrality, it would almost certainly have to give commercial interests a quid pro quo.  We may like that quid pro quo even less.

Given a choice, I think most of us would opt for net neutrality.  However, bandwidth isn’t infinite (we’re still a ways from that happening), so we might not mind filtering or governing if it doesn’t affect us all that much.  Given the reluctance of Congress to decide much of anything, it looks like we’re going to be living with some of the business decisions being made by our bandwidth providers for a while.

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