The network neutrality debate, which is expected to surface again this fall, is a faux issue that if mandated by Congress is bound to become a mess. Count me in the camp that Congress do nada about net neutrality.
“Net neutrality” is a term few can agree on. For Google, Yahoo and eBay, mandating net neutrality means that telecommunications giants will have to treat all Internet traffic equally. For net neutrality’s staunchest supporters, the concept has become a quasi-censorship issue (as if Verizon would tell its customers they couldn’t use Google). For telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon, net neutrality means they couldn’t charge for enhanced services. For Internet users, the end of net neutrality would be downright scary because costs could go upor not. Perhaps startups would be shut outor not. No one knows what will happen, since the debate is really a fracas between Net and telecom behemoths battling over their interests and trying to prod Congress to fix a problem that doesn’t exist yet. In other words, the histrionic levels in this debate are high.
So why shouldn’t Congress get involved? Here are a few reasons:
1. Congress will screw it up. If techies can’t agree on a definition of net neutrality, it’s highly unlikely that a bunch of pols understand the issue. Let’s say Congress does mandate net neutrality. Great news, right? Not so fast. Once net neutrality is mandated, the laws of unintended consequences kick in. Suddenly, we’re locked into a Net architecture (the current one that’s decades old). Suddenly, there are no fast lanes allowed. Suddenly, entrenched players become more entrenched into the current setup. Is it possible Congress could mandate net neutrality in a way that would allay all these concerns? Sure, but it’s unlikely. In fact, the only consensus on the net neutrality issue is that no one thinks Congress has a clue.
2. Fast lanes exist today. Proponents of mandating net neutrality cringe at the concept of tiered services. However, tiered services exist today. Fast lanes exist today. Meanwhile, what’s so bad about tiered services? Should we all be confined to an architecture that’s only going to get more congested? Case in point: Akamai. If you are a big Web content provider such as Google, Yahoo or CNN, you can afford to use Akamai’s services, which house content in places near the end users. If you are a startup, you may not be able to use Akamai. Take it one step further: If Congress says there’s no fast lane, does that mean Akamai can’t exist? Hmmm.
3. All traffic isn’t created equal. An e-mail doesn’t have the same service requirements as a VoIP call. An X-ray of a heart patient should have priority over a Britney Spears video. Corporate networks manage traffic that way, and at some point there has to be some intelligence added to public Internet infrastructure between the end-points. Intelligent networks could offer better security, route traffic more efficiently and generally make the Internet easier to operate. Net neutrality requirements mean all traffic is created equal. You can debate over who makes the call over what traffic gets priority, but to pretend all traffic is equal doesn’t hold up.
4. Telecom giants are already doomed. So net neutrality disappears, and AT&T and Verizon can theoretically do whatever they want. AT&T gets huffy and blocks Google and YouTube because it taxes Ma Bell’s infrastructure. Guess what? Customers leave. Sure, AT&T and Verizon wield a lot of power, but it’s more tenuous than you’d think. For starters, telecom giants are in no position to censor traffic. Meanwhile, technology is going to pull an end run on the last-mile issue. Sprint is rolling out WiMax, and Clearwire has hefty financial backers. Both will succeed. Don’t buy that argument? How about this one: If net neutrality ends, the likes of Google and Yahoo could start charging AT&T and Verizon to carry them on their networks. Why couldn’t Google charge network operators just like ESPN charges cable companies?
5. Laws exist to thwart net neutrality concerns today. Say AT&T does block Vonage. The Federal Communications Commission can act. Vonage can sue under antitrust law. Maybe these efforts won’t do enough. If that turns out to be the case, then Congress can cook up a fix when the problem surfaces. For now, mandating net neutrality is a recipe for disaster.
Larry Dignan is the executive editor/news for Ziff Davis’s eWEEK magazine and the former news editor of Baseline. He can be reached at [email protected]. This column originally appeared on eWEEK.com.