Q&A Friday #41: What About Net Neutrality?

Question: “What’s the deal with this whole Net Neutrality bill? I got an email from the CEO of eBay wanting me to contact my reps. Can you explain it in simple terms and why I should be concerned? Thanks!” — possum11

Answer: I’ve written about this before and although it’s very important, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, it’s not a simple subject to explain, and it’s not a black and white issue.

But, let me try to cut through all the propaganda and really break it down for you.

Currently, these big ISP’s that control the backbone of the internet are not allowed to prioritize traffic. In other words, traffic from Google, Ebay, Vonage, MoveOn, etc., etc., is all treated exactly the same way. However, because of a change in the law driven by a Supreme Court decision, “net neutrality” is going to go the way of the dodo unless Congress steps in.

The proponents of net-neutrality, who want Congress to legislate, are pointing out all of the theoretical horror stories that could take place if net neutrality goes away. You could have big companies taking steps to harm their competitors like VOIP phone services (Vonage, for example) and small ISP’s. You could see them trying to block access or charge exorbitant fees to companies like Google or Ebay. Essentially, they believe these companies could turn the internet into toll roads if they wanted to do so.

In order to get a better idea of the industry perspective, earlier today, I talked to David Fish and Mike McKeehan from Verizon. Incidentally, this is completely off topic, but whatever they’re paying these guys to deal with the media isn’t enough. They were both extremely sharp, on message, and did a great job of explaining their point of view.

To begin with, they said the idea that the big companies would block, slow-up, or harm in any way, websites like Google, Ebay, or Move-On was nuts. They said that as is, if there’s a problem with any sort of popular website, they get inundated with complaints. So, in order to keep their customers happy, they have to make sure they can get to these websites. On this point, I found them to be extremely convincing.

On the other hand, I wasn’t as convinced by their explanation of why they’d never try to take out a small ISP or VOIP competitor. They said that the moment they tried to do something like that, the FCC and the public would jump down their throats — which is probably true. On the other hand, if they can find a way to hurt their competitors, it has the potential to inflate their bottom line. So, I find it hard to believe that companies like AT&T, Verizon, etc., wouldn’t lower the boom on their direct competitors if they can find a way to get away with it.

Then there’s the issue of why they oppose net neutrality. Again, they made a strong case here. Fish pointed out that they want to build these massive new networks that are capable of handling not just the internet, but also telephony, video services (TV over the net), and wireless. He said that some of the net neutrality bills that Congress is looking at are written in such a way that they’d make the video services impossible to do and that without that component, suddenly these big new pipes don’t work financially and they’ll have to go in a different direction. That makes perfect sense.

So, as you can see, this is not a clearcut issue. There are a lot of pitfalls and perils on either side. Personally? I still lean towards network neutrality, but I’d like to see Congress use a very light hand. You know, set things up so that these companies could put their video services first, but also so that they couldn’t engage in any anti-competitive practices.

Of course, once Congress gets rolling on something like this, especially when you’re talking about the internet, which most of them barely understand, you never know what they’ll end up doing. My sense is that there’s a middle ground here that could probably satisfy most of the concerns both sides have on this issue, but whether Congress will end up there or not is anyone’s guess.

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