Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Making Sense out of the Net Neutrality Debate...

It's been all over the news lately, and Congress is preparing to hold a crucial vote on it. But what's the debate really about? Here's a quick primer on Net Neutrality.

Right now, the way the Internet works is that information is broken down into packets and sent over phone and cable lines (and increasingly, through the airwaves via wireless technology). As this information is sent around the Internet, no judgements are made on the content of that information. All data is viewed as equal, and therefore, no data is treated as more priveleged than any other data. This is what is meant by "net neutrality".

What is at issue: Should broadband providers be legally required to treat all content equally.

Here's the political debate. The pro-neutrality crowd argues that all information must be treated equally in order for the Internet to remain an open marketplace of ideas and innovation. They claim Net Neutrality to be "the First Amendment of the Internet". Without it, they argue, large corporations would be at such a structural advantage that entrepreneurs, small businesses, and individuals, would all be treated as second-class citizens. A non-neutral Internet would mean that telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T would create a "toll lane" on the web, charging extra money for the delivery of audio and video web content, and effectively have a "tiered Internet" where some are far more advantaged than others. They see the Internet as a "level playing-field" which rewards the best ideas rather than the most well-funded ideas and believe that net neutrality guidelines are necessary to maintain this dynamic.

Meanwhile, the anti-neutrality crowd argues that the government should avoid regulating the Internet and the telecom broadband providers. These corporations, they say, will not be blocking access to websites, they will only be making access faster or slower to websites depending on which ones would be willing to pay premium fees. Their second argument is that telecoms invest billions of dollars into laying down the nation's data infrastructure, therefore they should be able to make a return on that investment. According to net neutrality, it is not the telecoms investing in the infrastructure, but rather content providers like Google and Yahoo which reap the financial benefits, and this is inherently unfair.

So, a few of my observations...

First of all, it is fascinating to me that an issue like Net Neutrality has actually made it onto the mainstream political agenda. In a field historically dominated by technocrats, issues like this have usually flown way under the radar. What's different this time? Is some type of cultural shift taking place?

Second, it is quite disturbing that the debate has fallen under the umbrella of the traditional political game in Washington. According to preliminary data (viewable here), it seems this issue has already splintered along party lines - Democrats supporting net neutrality, Republicans opposing it. For that segment of the population who believe in the exceptionalism of cyberspace - that it is fundamentally different that real-space environments and therefore warrants a fundamentally different dialogue - this is both a disturbing and also disappointing development.

My opinion is this: I have my own personal web page, as well as a website I maintain for my students in an institution of higher education. It is currently hosted on my own server, outside from the university. Net neutrality would guarantee that my website could continue to be accessed at the same speed as any other. Without it, it would take minutes to load my website, but only seconds to load corporate commercial sites, such as Yahoo's, unless I was willing to pay a premium fee (which I probably could not afford). It seems to me that there are inherent social benefits for having an equal and neutral World Wide Web which in this case trump those of the small handful of corporate telecoms.

The true value of the Internet, in my humble opinion, lies both in the availability and diversity of its content. Net neutrality is a means for preserving both of these elements, and the loss of net neutrality would place them in great danger.


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