Friday, July 21, 2006

Network or Internet Neutrality

Congress is considering the issue of "net neutrality" this session (HR 5252 and HR 5273 amongst others.) Despite the slightly Gibsonesque sound of the phrase, this is an issue that we should all be concerned about, or at least aware of.

Net neutrality concerns the rules that govern transmission via the Internet. A good summary and a lot more information can be found at the Center for Democracy & Technology. The CDT is one of the best, and most respected, policy organizations active in the area of technology and public policy. It is well worth consulting on Internet policy and various digital privacy issues.

When you begin to try and fight your way through the thicket of information out there about net neutrality from competing organizations, it can get very confusing very fast. A couple of analogies help. One way to think about net neutrality is to compare the internet to roads. Our system of public roads are neutral. Anyone with a car, gas, and who meets the legal requirements, can travel on any road. If they were not neutral, in the way that some of the pending legislation in Congress proposes, then it would be as though Walmart had an HOV lane that its customers could travel on from home to the local Walmart, but that bypassed the small shops downtown. Of course, the difference between our roads and the Internet is that our roads are largely publicly funded, the Internet is no longer publicly funded.

Another analogy would be to the phone network. Once you have a phone and have paid for service your calls to anyone on the network are all treated equally. There is no difference in sound quality or ease of connection between calls. Again, the system is neutral. If it were not neutral then it would be as though your bank could pay to make sure that your calls to them were clearer and connections easier to make than your calls to your mother.

As you might expect, this policy development process in Congress is shaping up to be a classic battle of industrial interest group politics. In some ways it reminds me of some of the history of Florida's development detailed in Grunwald's book that I mentioned in my 7/16/06 post to this blog. The telecommunication industry and their supporters are proposing the move away from net neutrality because they own the wires etc. upon which the Internet runs and they could make a lot of money by selling tiered access to digital content providers. They say that this revenue will enable them to continue to build the network and to fund innovation. The content providers, user groups, and the software industry tend to oppose the move away from net neutrality because they don't want to pay those increased costs. They could use that money to fund their own innovation in digital content etc. and worry that the telecomms will simply use the extra money as a windfall profit. Of course, the telecomms are also very interested in becoming content providers and one way to look at this is an attempt by those industry players to gain an advantage over their rivals in this field. Thus a classic battle of industrial interest group politics: who gets to pay and who gets to profit?

User groups think they are paying enough already and worry that a tiered system of access will continue a trend towards the consolidation of power on the Internet amongst the wealthiest corporations. Educational and library groups are, of course, both users and content providers, and so have come out for net neutrality and against the proposed legislation. Libraries are concerned that users will be even less likely to begin their research at a library website if that site is slow to load and tough to find because they know that they will not be able to pay for top tier access. They also fear that they will be forced to pay a premium for access to online database vendors (like Proquest, which the Olin Library licenses a number of databases from, or EBSCO) who will pay for top tier access and pass the costs onto their library customers. This tiered access will also have the effect of steering users towards resources with top tier access and away from other resources based on access, not some other measure of utility. Educational institutions are concerned that they too will not be able to afford top tier access and thus traffic to, from, and between research institutions will be hampered. Transferring information between research institutions was the very raison d'etre of the Internet, so they are naturally concerned.
But there is a real issue here that the telecomms are forcing us to consider; who pays for innovation? If we truly think that a for-profit, market driven model will produce the greatest innovation then why shouldn't the for-profit providers of the networks be allowed to profit in new ways from their investment? We could all potentially gain from their innovation. The old monopolistic and highly regulated Ma Bell telephone company or the old power utility companies were very reliable, but not innovative. Is it fair to consign a particular industry to a highly regulated role so that others can profit?

I tend towards the neutrality side of this debate, you might not. In any case, it will impact your life over the next decades. Love them or hate them, the Internet and South Florida, both came to be how they are today through these kind of policy battles. You should keep informed.

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