5 Myths of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality bubbled to the top of the news stack today with the submission by Google and Verizon of their net neutrality principles to the FCC. Bloggers and news outlets cried “The End of the Internet is Nigh” with heated emotional tirades describing apocalyptical scenarios of what would happen to the Internet if net neutrality was ignored.

I started the day mildly in favor of net neutrality. People I respect, like Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig and Vint Cerf, support net neutrality, so I thought it was a good thing. But the more reading I did, and the more I thought about the issues, the more I came to the conclusion that “net neutrality”is being redefined in ways that have broad consequences for the future of the Internet. And while I agree with some of the principles of net neutrality, on the whole, I’d rather live in a world without it.

While reading today through articles about net neutrality, I kept running across the same inaccurate claims and doomsday scenarios by people who seemed not to understand the dynamics or history of the Internet. This article goes through these claims and attempts to dispel those myths.

1. Certain Web Sites Will Load Faster

Advocates claim that without net neutrality, web companies will pay ISPs to ensure their site loads faster and that this will create a two tiers of web sites, the Bloomingdale’s and the K-Marts.

The reality is that web companies already pay money to make their web sites load faster. Google spends millions of dollars maintaining dozens of data centers around the world and creates private agreements with regional ISPs so their site loads faster than other sites. Akamai provides a service which allows any company willing to pay to push their static content to the edges of the network to make pages load faster.

Paying for faster access to the consumer is nothing new. Back in the late nineties, one of the main selling points of the Alta Vista search engine was that it was co-located at one of the cross-roads of Internet traffic, so it could return results faster than its competitors.

On the flip side, without net neutrality, web companies would be free to pay ISPs for premium access to their customers. This might make it easier for smaller sites to provide fast access. Rather than having to physically build out data centers to gain a speed advantage, they could pay ISPs for the same speed advantage, likely for a much lower price than it would take to build and maintain duplicate data centers.

2. Startups Won’t Be Able To Compete

Fears of hampering the next Google are often cited by net neutrality proponents. “What if we didn’t have net neutrality back then, how would Google have gotten started?”, they cry.

As mentioned above, net neutrality didn’t exist back then and Google did fine. Alta Vista had the fastest connection, but Google had the better results. The paradigm of how to do search shifted and Google won.

Arguing against net neutrality, there are some technologies that might never be created if we don’t allow tiered services. Without quality of service guarantees, low latency applications will take longer to adopt as consumers choose not to deal with the frustrations of poor service. I would argue that the adoption of VOIP and Internet TV has been hampered by ISPs’ reluctance to adopt quality of service offerings in the face of the net neutrality debate.

3. Costs For Consumers Will Increase

Proponents of net neutrality often claim that the costs of Internet service for consumers will increase because ISPs will be able to hold consumers hostage and charge them for access to specific web sites.

The problem with this argument is that, without a monopoly, they can’t charge both the content creators and the content consumers. The value to a content creator of paying an ISP is based on its number of consumers. Start placing restrictions on consumers visiting web sites, and the ISP no longer has a bargaining chip with the content creators.

Moreover, by implementing tiered access, ISPs can reduce their costs to serve the consumer and, in a competitive market, will likely pass those cost savings on to the consumer. So rather than having to buy a 3 Meg best-effort connection to watch a 1 Meg Netflix video without it pausing to re-buffer, I could buy a 1 Meg guaranteed connection at a cheaper price.

4. A Private Internet Will Be Created

A common doomsday scenario if we don’t pass net neutrality rules is that a private internet will be created alongside the public Internet, with each ISP charging for access to its own content.

History, however, tells a different story. Fears about a separate “private” Internet should have been settled with the demise of AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. All started with a business model of a private network where they controlled the content and none survived. Without any regulation, the public Internet won out.

And yet, a limited private Internet might be a good thing. A dedicated network among regional hospitals that guarantees bandwidth during a remote “telemedicine” operation would be good. Imagine being in the operating room and the surgeon assisting with your operation from another hospital can’t see what he’s doing because of network lag.

5. You’re Either With Us Or The Big Corporations

The implications of many net neutrality articles is clear: You’re either for net neutrality or you’re for big greedy corporations. Usually this involves a big list of who supports net neutrality and short list of who’s against net neutrality: the ISPs. The idea that there could be benefit to consumers in not having net neutrality never occurs. So I’ll tell you exactly why I don’t want net neutrality.

I want quality of service guarantees. I want voice calls over the Internet that don’t suck in call quality. I want my videos not to pause and buffer when I’m in the middle of watching one. I want a reserved high-speed connection to Amazon’s EC2 so I can manage my servers without network lag. I want my network backup to always have low priority and my web meeting software to always have high priority. I want my ISP to block home users from unknowingly sending out spam or denial of service attacks because they got infected with a virus.

Back in the early nineties there was a great debate on whether commercial activities should be allowed on the Internet. It sounds silly now. Imagine our world today if 15 years ago we made a rule against commercial activities on the Internet. In hindsight I’m glad it went the way it did. But the same dire predictions of an Internet meltdown were occurring back then. I believed them back then; I’m more skeptical now.

In conclusion, I don’t think net neutrality is all bad. I just think it’s being over hyped and turning into a religious war rather than a rational debate. I personally would like to see a base level of service that is guaranteed by law, but with the ability for ISPs to offer premium services on top of that. That way no ISP could deny access to a web site and we’d have open access, but there’d still be the ability to have quality of service and advanced network management to make the Internet even better.

If you’re interested in reading more, a fantastic article describing the history and architecture of the Internet, and why net neutrality never was and shouldn’t be, read Network Neutrality or Internet Innovation?. Another article I’m still reading, but which has some interesting insights so far is Net Neutrality or Net Neutering: Should Broadband Internet Services Be Regulated?




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