The inventor of the WWW has a short, to-the-point post that explains exactly why supporting real, bona fide net neutrality is the Right Thing to Do. I absolutely encourage you to read the entire post, but really he sums up the whole argument for net neutrality in his opening sentence:
When I invented the Web, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission.
If you think about it in terms of start-ups having to ask the permission of AT&T to innovate, then the whole net neutrality issue becomes less complicated.
Ma Bell may I?
What the opponents of net neutrality are pouring millions into lobbying for is a world where, when someone offers a new high-bandwidth service over the Internet, they have to go around to each of the last-mile providers and ask, “may I have permission to compete on a level playing field with the other services that go over your pipes?” And if entrepeneurs can’t come up with enough funding to appease the troll that guards that particular bridge, then they could effectively lose access to the customers at the other end.
To move the discussion away from the typical example of high-bandwidth video, let me turn to the example of a new email attachment service, called Pando, that was recently brought to my attention. From what I can tell, Pando is a P2P service for sending very large files through email. You attach to your email a .pando file, which is probably something like a .torrent file, and a user on the other end who has the Pando client can open that .pando file and use it to begin downloading the larger file that you want to send them.
Now, I have no idea how well this Pando thing works, or even if it works at all. I bring it up only because it seems like new, kind of slick start-up idea. But on a non-neutral Internet, Pando is a much less attractive as a small business. Why? Because if I’m on Comcast and you’re on AT&T, and I try to send you a .pando file, then both of our ISPs have to have agreed to let this new service’s packets through at a reasonable clip. If either Comcast or AT&T has decided to throttle Pando packets (maybe Pando is being used to send video files!), then Pando will work for me when emailing some folks but not others. In the face of such uneven and generally unpredictable results, most users will probably skip the service entirely, and the world would have one less small business.
At this point, I should insert a word on “throttling” vs. quality of service (QoS). The telcos are arguing that they don’t want to throttle anyone’s traffic—they just want the freedom to offer better transport (QoS) to services that pay up. This is a misleading way to frame the issue.
If three companies run competing video-on-demand services and only one has paid the piper, then the other two guys are effectively throttled as far as end users are concerned. This is especially true if the baseline level of transport service for streaming media on that ISP’s network is set painfully low. All Comcast would have to do is make a rule that all streaming video sites default to a relatively small amount of bandwidth, and they get more acceptable levels of bandwidth as they pay more. This amounts to throttling people who don’t pay, and I think the odds are greatly in favor of this kind of thing becoming rampant on a non-neutral Internet.
Even worse would be a situation where Comcast enters into some kind of exclusive deal with an online service provider, with the result that the cost of competing on a level playing field with that favored service are set prohibitively high. Of course, such a move would probably spark lawsuits from competitors, but do we really want to rely on very expensive tort law to enforce what simple regulation could do much more cheaply and rationally?
But I thought regulation was bad for markets?
It’s on the topic of regulation that Berners-Lee lets loose with another great one-line takedown of all the anti-regulatory rhetoric that the telcos and their surrogates have been using:
For example, the market system depends on the rule that you can’t photocopy money.
The simple truth that you can’t have a free market without government regulation should be so obvious that it hurts, but after a few decades of some industries pushing a “regulation vs. free markets” dichotomy people need to be reminded that the sky is, in fact, blue.
Because markets rest on the rule of law, the relationship between markets and regulation is not a binary opposition but a continuum. Anarchy at one extreme and overregulation at the other are both antithetical to free markets. You have to have rules to play by, because the rules guarantee that the game is fair.
But enough of my preaching. Go read the Berners-Lee post, pass it around to your friends, and call your congressperson. You should also check out Danny Weitzner’s comprehensive essay on net neutrality, linked in the post.
Don’t let the telcos break the Internet.