Net neutrality is back and ready to cause much gnashing of teeth (see U.S. as Traffic Cop in Web Fight, Wall Street Journal, Sep 19). Net neutrality is at its heart a very simple idea: Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all packages of data the same. They should not, say, allow quick delivery of emails under 100KB while delaying those over 100KB. Nor should they slow down the downloading of video files from Pirate Bay while fast tracking those from Amazon or the iTunes store. Some see this as a founding principle of the web. On the Internet no one can tell your a dog and no one should judge the traffic you generate. However, there are also regulatory restrictions from the ancient days of land-line service. Phone companies were obliged to treat fax and voice traffic the same and could not delay making connections among different classes of customers. Net neutrality seems the logical extension of this.
But, of course, the Internet is different. With digital traffic, ISPs have greater control over how “work” (i.e., packets of data) flow through their systems and they would like to exploit that ability. The question becomes whether they do it for the greater good or to line their own pockets. First, one has to recognize the basic difference between digital downloads and traditional voice telephone traffic. Service degradation during a phone call could render the service useless if you can’t hear the other person. In contrast, downloading the latest episode of The Daily Show doesn’t require the same level of consistency. If it takes 10 minutes instead of 5 minutes, it is an annoyance but you still have the file at the end of the day. Thus there is greater room for discretion in handling the flow of traffic.
Next, note that if you have a handful of users that like moving around really big files, they create negative externalities and congestion. If we treat all data flows equally, these heavy users degrade service for other users. Hence, if the ISP deviate from net neutrality, they could make most users better off. This is, of course, what Comcast et al claim they aim to do. However, there is another possibility. Deviations from net neutrality mean imposing priorities and some people will pay to have faster service — if not, FedEx wouldn’t exist. The pro net neutrality crowd, fear that if net neutrality isn’t mandated that ISPs will create an uneven playing field by holding up traffic generators (think Amazon selling movies on line) for large pay offs. This is particularly problematic if Comcast or AT&T want to get into the business of selling content themselves.
At the moment, it seems that the Obama administration is siding with Amazon and Google at the expense of the major telecommunication firms. There may ultimately be a question of how Congress weighs in. The interesting twist that arises now is that demand for mobile services have grown a lot and whether net neutrality is going to apply merely to ISPs or to cell phone carriers as well. Also, this comes back to something we have posted about before: To what extent should queue management be legislated. That is, there is a link between medical networks, public toilets and the Internet.