I’ve mentioned the looming war over net neutrality before. The more I look at this problem the more I realize it’s a no-win situation. Regardless of the solution found we lose something. Very recently Google and Verizon announced their legislative framework for net neutrality [PDF]. For those of you unwilling to read the document is boils down to this; Verizon is willing to surrender on the net neutrality battle on their wired networks in exchange for being able to ignore net neutrality on it’s wireless network.
There seems to be two options in regards to this battle; ask the government to legislate net neutrality or allow ISPs to control what goes across their wires as they see fit. No matter what solution is arrived at we the people get shafted.
Let us look at option one, government legislation. Anybody with a grasp of history knows government legislation doesn’t every work out as planned. The most dangerous outcome of legislating net neutrality is it will give the government precedence to further legislate Internet traffic. Sure this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal at first right? Wrong. With this precedence all we’ll need is one self-righteous politician wanting to “protect the children” or one politician in the pocket of Comcast to introduce additional legislation. For instance since the government now gets to state what traffic will be neutral (you can guarantee they won’t write a bill saying all traffic, they’ll set a committee in place to decide these things) they will get to change the rules. Maybe one religious zealot will decide pornographic websites must be filtered, throttled, or blocked and change net neutrality to add an exception for said traffic. Another politician might listen to Comcast and claim since BitTorrent is mostly used for illegal file sharing that ISPs have the right to outright block the traffic. It’s a deep and dark hole and we don’t want to travel down.
The other interesting problem with government regulations is their desire to hand out bailouts. How so? Well the newspaper industry has been chomping at the bit for a bailout and the government has been thinking about doing so. One proposal put forth was to charge bloggers a fee which would be sent to the newspapers. The reason? Well according to those proposing this bloggers only steal newspaper articles anyways so they should pay for them. What’s to say such a newspaper bailout isn’t included with any net neutrality legislation? You can guarantee such legislation will have hundreds of pet projects, pork, and other unrelated crap in it. What should take a paragraph will end up being 500 pages with nobody know exactly what’s in the bill.
Then we have option two, allow ISPs to control what goes over their wires. This is equally dangerous as the above because now each company will decide what sites their customers have access to. If you need an example of this just turn to AOL when they were an ISP first getting started. AOL did their best to create a walled garden providing a cleansed Internet experience for their customers. This wasn’t that surprising as when the Internet amounted to bulletin board systems you were mostly restricted to talking to people using the same ISP as you had. Alas this problem is even bigger due to the fact there are a handful of very powerful ISPs. Let’s say Comcast, America’s biggest ISP, decide they are going to block all BitTorrent traffic. Since most traffic crosses a Comcast line at some point they would effectively block BitTorrent traffic for most American users regardless of the ISP they used.
I haven’t answered one question yet, why do I feel net neutrality is a needed thing? Why do I think we have any “right” (I’m not claiming any rights here but it’s a word the better reflects my idea I’m putting forth) to uncontrolled Internet traffic? How can I believe companies can’t control what is going across their wires? Well the answer to all those questions is one simple fact, the Internet was created from public funds. I glossed over the history of the Internet in my previous net neutrality post. But the Internet evolved from ARPANET which was a government funded (in other words tax money funded) research project during the Cold War. Everything from the protocols to ICANN (who control allocation of IP addresses) was created with American tax money. Heck much of the physical infrastructure was paid for through public funds. Because of this I feel we have some say in how the system we paid for is used. We can bitch, whine, moan, and otherwise complain because we paid for it. It wasn’t created by a private company and thus is a public system. That’s why the rules here are different, plain and simple.
The ironic thing is what we have right now is the best option. Currently the government wants to legislate net neutrality but need an case to point to for justification. On the other hand ISPs want to begin charging customers more money via tiered (as in site access not connection speeds) Internet access but are know that will be exactly the case the government wants. It’s a stand off. So long as this stand off continues to exist we’re OK and everything is peachy. The second this stand off stops we’re going to start losing.