The Network Neutrality Issue In A Nutshell

Network Neutrality is an extraordinarily complex subject. Even explaining it in a way that people can understand is difficult to do. That problem is compounded by the fact that a lot of what you read about net neutrality is just plain old wrong. Perhaps worse yet, given the complexity involved, the government is looking to further regulate the Internet. That’s really scary given the knowledge level that many of the old fogeys in Congress and at the FCC have of the issue. At some point, we’re likely to have people who barely know how to use their email putting together rules that will have the potential to stifle the growth of the Internet in the United States. How do I know all this? Well, I used to work for an ISP wholesaler that dealt with backbone issues. I’ve also had long conversations with heavies at Verizon about this topic and I’ve done some net neutrality consulting work on behalf of USIIA. So, I get this.

Now, let’s break this down to the basic-basic level and tell you the bare minimum of what you need to know.

First off, what is net neutrality? Here’s a good definition:

Columbia University Professor Tim Wu, who wrote about the subject in 2003, has said, “Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally.” For consumers, this means that they are able to use their internet connection for any purpose they see fit.

That description is essentially how the internet works as we speak.

So, what’s the debate over?

In a sense, we’re all free-riding on incredibly expensive, massive networks built by companies like AT&T, Verizon, & MCI. There’s a need to dramatically expand these networks and the companies that are paying the bill are asking for some minor changes. They want to be able to provide video services, to compete with cable, and they also want to be able to sell specialized services. This is the “anti-net neutrality” side of the argument, although I’d argue that it’s really not much different than the system we have in place now.

The counter argument is that if these companies are allowed to do this, the system we currently enjoy will end because surely these companies will block their competitors or slow down people they don’t like. This is a specious argument that doesn’t hold up in the real world.

For example, let’s say your ISP hates conservatives and decides to make every conservative website they can find last in priority when it moves over its networks. That means all those websites would run slower than they do today. So, what’s going to happen if they try that? First off, all of their customers who like those websites are going to raise holy hell and then move to another ISP that doesn’t do that. Moreover, if that went on, the FCC and Congress would both be very likely to get involved. In other words, this oft stated fear is vapor.

That’s probably why Verizon (perhaps the most notable “anti-net neutrality” telecom) and Google (probably the most notable “pro-net neutrality” company) got together and “announced a joint policy statement in which they outlined their own network neutrality principles.”

This is a good thing — two prominent companies that understand the industry, with completely different concerns, getting together to hash out an agreement that will hopefully make everyone happy. The idea behind the Google-Verizon agreement is supposed to be that it could be a starting point for legislation, if and when Congress eventually gets involved.

One potential hitch is that the FCC seems to be toying with the idea of coming up with its own rules. This would be a bad idea at any time, but with the regulation-happy, power-hungry Obama team in charge, it would be downright dangerous to the future of the Internet to have the FCC writing far reaching rules that have the potential to dramatically stunt the growth of the Internet.

At the moment, there’s nothing to fear, since the FCC isn’t writing regulations and Congress isn’t legislating the matter. However, if one or the other has to do something, it would be better for Congress to do it because they’d be more accountable and more likely to tread lightly than the incompetent bureaucrats at the FCC.

Now, after reading all that, you may be saying, “Hawkins, I read all that and I still don’t understand much more about this issue than I did when I started.”

If so, here’s the cheat sheet: Having “net neutrality” as it’s envisioned by the far Left, imposed on the Internet, would be bad news. The Google/Verizon agreement is probably a good starting point for legislation — and last, but not least, if something has to be done, it would be better to have Congress do it than the FCC. That, my friends, is the network neutrality issue in a nutshell.

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