Network neutrality: Doing the right things

Once again, the topic of network neutrality is back in the news and, as before, the argument is getting quite heated.Supporting President Obama's campaign promise, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has weighed in big time for neutrality by proposing two new principles to be added to the four adopted by the commission in 2005, and also by announcing that they would be turning the principles into regulations.

In summary, the old principles were that network service providers cannot interfere with users accessing whatever lawful Internet content, applications and services they please and that they can't stop users from connecting equipment that doesn't cause network problems. The new principles would prohibit service providers from interfering with the free flow of network traffic and require that they are transparent about how they manage their networks.

Of course, many people and groups are displeased. The ISPs are, to say the least, not at all happy about this. They argue that traffic shaping is necessary to ensure fairness and quality of service and that the rules would reduce their ability to manage their networks.

This is a ridiculous argument as there's nothing in the rules that would prevent the service providers from properly running their networks. They would just not be allowed to preferentially manipulate traffic to support their own business interests or block or slow the communications of those they might consider competitive.

Along with the technical arguments against the rules there are other arguments that criticize the business implications of network neutrality. For example, The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) -- which describes itself as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest organization" but is actually a well-funded conservative think tank that promotes a lot of bizarre positions on many issues -- argues that "When government dictates business models, it fuels artificial conflicts between content and infrastructure firms by driving a wedge between what are otherwise complementary, harmonious, and often synergistic visions."

This kind of argument, which you'll also hear from many other organizations, is just plain silly. To begin with, the government has always been in the business of dictating business models! In fact it could be argued that that is the bulk of what they do! And those "artificial conflicts"? If the network providers can implement traffic shaping as and when they please then the conflicts between content providers and ISPs will become very real.

What the critics of network neutrality ignore and what is almost never argued by its supporters is that network neutrality is a social issue, not a business issue.

It is stating the blindingly obvious to argue that the Internet has changed how we communicate and it is the depth and breadth of the change and how it has transformed just about everything that puts it on a par with the telephone service, the highway system and the power grid. Those are all services that we can't function without and if they had been left in the sole care and control of the free market we would be a less dynamic and productive society today. There are some things that are just too big and too important to us collectively to be treated as simply ways of making money.Look what happened with the financial industry. A few greedy, devious &@*#$%s were allowed to play fast and loose with the wealth of the nation without enough rules and oversight and, boy, have we paid the price. Allow the Internet to operate unregulated and you'll see that same kind of greed distort and corrupt the value of Internet communications that we, as a culture, are currently benefiting from.

Let me be clear: I think network neutrality is crucial; it is an issue that's bigger than business and I believe that if we're going to grow into the highly connected culture that we all envision, what we need is more regulation and more oversight.

Now the downside: We're going to have to pay more. There's little doubt that regulated Internet service will probably be more expensive but that's the consequence of doing what's right for our society.

So, we have a choice: We can opt for trying to manage the Internet so that we, collectively, get the greatest possible societal benefit from it or we can leave it up to the business world and hope that they do the right thing.

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