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Aggregating Skeptical Thought

Neutral on Net Neutrality

Being of the uber-geek kind of person, these topics interest me more than the average Joe. I also think being in the IT industry (and having started as the lowly help desk guy and worked my way through network administrator and then back down as a lowly developer and now up to software development manager) I may have more insight into the positive or negative impacts that some seemingly innocuous laws can actually have.

One of the issues that I follow is the debater currently in the Congress regarding “Net Neutrality“. Basically, the issues centers around whether or not ISPs can restrict (or price discriminate) the different kinds of traffic that is sent/received on their networks. An example of this would be charging customers more to play broadband video from their websites than simply hosting webpages or static image files. Using this example the local internet provider could charge YouTube more for internet access (because of their content) than say if YouTube simply had pictures that you could download.

This issue is one that is separate from bandwidth. Chargin for bandwidth is simply *how much* traffic you pay for versus *what kind* of traffic you pay for. I and others have no problem with being charged more for bandwidth. That’s like being charged for having multiple phone lines. Of course you should be charged for this. Applying Net Neutrality issues to phone lines, this would be like being charged more use your phone line to send a fax versus calling your mother on Mother’s Day.

Some of the underlying issues regarding Net Neutrality are highlighted by the phone analogy.

  1. It doesn’t cost the telephone company anymore or less for me to call mom or send a fax, the cost of the resource is fixed.
  2. The only way for a telephone company to know when to charge me differently is to actually listen to the phone calls, which raises privacy issues
  3. And perhaps most importantly being charged to do different things has the potential to stifle innovation using these resources. Would fax machines have been invented? What impact would pricing teirs have had on the early days of the Internet when most people’s mode of access used a dial-up modem (which is fundamentally the same and indistinguishable from a fax signal*). Would people have been willing to pay more to connect the Internet on top of the charge from Compuserv or AOL?

In the 3 examples above simply substitute ISP for telephone company (and mom for webpages and fax for broadband video ) and you now understand what Net Neutrality means.

Wired.com has an article, Bill Bars Web Traffic Discrimination, details recent legislation introduced reaffirming the “Neutrality” of the Internet. Or more specifically it,

“… suggest[s] that the principles which have guided the Internet’s development and expansion are highly worthy of retention, and it seeks to enshrine such principles in the law as guide stars for U.S. broadband policy”

Perhaps the most valid complaint (at least in my mind) is that this new legislation while establishing Net Neutrality as a guiding principle for the U.S. it also gives the FCC additional regulatory powers over what ISPs can and cannot do. For example, Comcast was recently smacked around for throttling certain customers bandwidth, which they pay for,  specifically regarding peer-to-peer file sharing in order to provide adequate bandwidth to additional customers. As a customer, would you be happy when you call Comcast to complain that your Internet is slow and they tell you it’s because your neighbor is downloading music and using up a larger piece of the shared pie and that because of “Net Neutrality” their is nothing they can do?

* Technically not true but for the sake of this example we’ll just keep things simple.

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Filed under: Internet, Politics, , , ,

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