Network Neutrality – It’ll Make Your Head Hurt

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm After they’ve seen Paree”

song from World War I Era

Network neutrality is a phrase that has been the subject of much debate – and the discussion about it reaches far beyond the recent conversations of the blogoshpere.

Previously unbeknownst to me, I came across this term as I began to investigate whether access to the Internet is a freedom or a privilege. Network neutrality, as described by the author who framed this particular question, “means that the network does not discriminate among different types of traffic based on the traffic’s source, destination or content.”

What is prompting the more prominent discussion about network neutrality? The impending tug of war over the Internet. Network providers like Verizon, BellSouth, and the new AT&T (which SBC recently acquired and re-branded itself as) hope to begin charging content providers like Google or Yahoo! additional money for prioritized delivery of content – in other words, they aim to discriminate amongst different types of network traffic.

Telcos like Verizon provide America’s network infrastructure, often called “the pipes”, which are no more than the physical wires and cables that network traffic flows in and through. Their main issue is that Internet companies are continuing to make more money by providing richer yet more bandwidth intensive media and applications to their users. The telcos aren’t seeing any increased earnings while having to maintain the subsequent demands on their lines.

Consider the case of Apple’s iTunes. If the network providers were to win out and eliminate network neutrality, they might ask Apple for 5 cents for every song downloaded. Similarly, the telcos could set prices to determine which content provider’s traffic was delivered first or at all.

Proponents of the end-to-end network neutral world often contextualize the debate in terms of economics and competition. Professors Tim Wu of the University of Virginia School of Law and Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School boil their argument down to “securing investments in innovation” and “encouraging competition among applications”.

In their Ex Parte, presented to the FCC, they write, “a network that is as neutral as possible is predictable: all applications are treated alike.” By eliminating unpredictability, they believe there is more incentive to invest in developing broadband technologies. The other position they support has a similar flavor – network neutrality promotes the survival of the fittest rather than being favored by “network bias”.

There are equally as smart people lobbying against network neutrality. One such individual is Christopher Yoo, an Associate Law Professor at Vanderbilt University. Yoo frames his position as follows:

“There can be no question that the widespread acceptance of the end-to-end argument has played a key role in fostering the Internet’s meteoric success and remains a central tenet guiding decisions with respect to network design. That said, the academic debates and the arguments currently being advanced before the FCC have largely overlooked the fact that there is a crucial difference between embracing the end-to-end argument as a design principle and elevating it into a regulatory mandate.”

Yoo goes on to articulate some pretty convincing points:

“the major network neutrality proposals advocate regulating the logical layer in a way that promotes competition in the application and content layers. In the process, they direct their efforts towards the wrong policy problem. Instead, the focus of public policy should be to promote competition in the physical layer, which remains the level of production that is currently the most concentrated, the least competitive, and best protected by barriers to entry.

While it is true that allowing Internet providers to impose proprietary protocols could have a significant impact on innovation and competition, forbidding them from doing so could have equally dramatic effects. Either decision necessarily involves policymakers in the unenviable task of picking technological winners and losers.”

His conclusion, however, is what prompted me to begin this post with a reference to that old World War I song:

“The fact that interoperability and neutrality have represented the historical norm makes it seem appropriate to put the burden of persuasion on those who would move away from that architecture.”

As is often the case of public policy debates, the outcome will largely be tied to the hearts and minds of the people. The Internet and for the most part, its content has been free. While Yoo lays out a solid case, winning over impassioned netizens will be hard to do. They’ve seen “Paree” – an interconnected global world filled with free stuff – they won’t be ready to go back to the “farm” of paying for everything anytime soon.