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Challenging the Foundational Premises of Net Neutrality Thinking

To begin the formal net neutrality vs. net competition debate, let me start by challenging the foundational premises of net neutrality thinking.

  • My first challenge is that the use of the term “neutralityâ€? in this context is very misleading. There is nothing “neutralâ€? about how net neutrality proposals would affect the future of the Internet.
  • My second challenge is to the notion that net neutrality proponents have fostered, that all data traffic has been and should continue to be treated equally. That impression is also very misleading because everyone knows of many legitimate, real-world reasons why data traffic is not treated the same.
  • My third challenge is to another notion that net neutrality proponents have fostered, that a net neutrality policy would just be preserving the long-standing status quo and not be a big change in policy. That impression is very misleading too, because it suggests that people don’t have to consider the broader implications or potential unintended consequences of net neutrality legislation/regulation.

  • What’s neutral about...?

  • Is all data traffic equal?

  • Unintended consequences?

What’s neutral about…?

The use of the word “neutrality� is misleading in this context.

What’s neutral about dictating only one way to design networks to the exclusion of new network innovations and competitive alternatives?

  • Net neutrality could permanently lock in the current engineering approach by effectively prohibiting competitive networks from innovating and differentiating with potentially better engineering approaches.
  • Is more government-control of the Internet’s design really the best way to keep it free and open?

What’s neutral about legislating a double standard: where innovation is encouraged off-network at the edge, but effectively prohibited inside the network?

  • Why would Congress want to effectively prohibit network experimentation, innovation and improvement?
  • Why would Congress want to discourage “the rapid deployment of new telecommunications technologies,â€? one of the explicit purposes of the 1996 Telecom Act?

What’s neutral about rigging a game, by choosing who will win and lose a game before it is played?

  • Net neutrality would be a public policy decision to pro-actively tilt the competitive playing field to the benefit of edge companies and to permanently disadvantage competitive broadband network companies.

Is all data traffic really equal?

Contrary to the perception that all Internet traffic is treated equally today, it is not treated the same, for a variety of legitimate, real world reasons.

  • Everyone knows they have widely different Internet access choices based on price, technology and provider:

    • Free WiFi access, cheap dialup access, or more expensive broadband.
      • And each type of Internet access comes with different speeds, prices and features.
    • Internet backbone peering has also been long characterized by different tiers of service based on size and amount of traffic carried.

  • Everyone knows that networks block suspected viruses and spam; that’s very beneficial different treatment of traffic: it makes the Internet safer, more secure and more useful.
  • Everyone knows that the speed and quality of Internet traffic fluctuates unequally depending on how many people are using the bandwidth at any given time.
  • Everyone knows that more graphics or video-intensive websites and content take different amount of times to open depending on the site and the speed of your computer and other variables.
  • Everyone knows that some geographic areas are easier to get Internet access than others. Many natural circumstances result in data traffic being treated differently: different physical terrain, population densities, lines of sight, etc.
  • Everyone knows that search engines treat the data traffic of search results differently. “Sponsored linksâ€? that pay the most get top billing treatment.

Potential unintended consequences of net neutrality.

“All bits are equal� and mandated equal treatment of all data traffic may sound appealing in the abstract.

  • However, in the real world net neutrality could have serious unintended consequences.

True network neutrality, where no bits are favored or prioritized over others, could:

Hinder public safety and homeland security.

  • Why shouldn’t 911 data calls or information get priority over normal traffic?
  • Why shouldn’t first responder data traffic during a natural disaster get priority over normal traffic?
  • Why shouldn’t homeland security data traffic get priority over normal traffic?

Complicate protecting Americans privacy.

  • Why shouldn’t a network be able to treat personal medical records or sensitive financial identity information more privately and more securely than non-private bits?

Erode the quality and responsiveness of the Internet.

  • Why shouldn’t a network designer be able to treat unwanted traffic, like spam and viruses, differently than wanted traffic?
  • Why shouldn’t networks be able to give priority to time-sensitive bits, like live voice conversation, ahead of non-time-sensitive web searches?
  • Why shouldn’t data networks be able to manage their networks to ensure quality of service for all users?

Discourage deployment of broadband to all Americans.

  • Why shouldn’t competitive broadband network providers be able to innovate and experiment with new services, pricing plans, and business models to fund investment in broadband facilities for all Americans?
  • Why discourage investment in additional bandwidth supply just when IP video will be creating an explosion of new bandwidth demand?

Make it harder for parents to protect their children.

  • Why shouldn’t networks offering family packages be able to block children’s access to pornographic sites or content inappropriate for children?
  • Why shouldn’t networks be able to offer services that block children’s access to websites and content that could make them vulnerable to online predators?

Limit consumer’s competitive choices.

  • Why shouldn’t current competition policy be allowed to fulfill its purpose of creating competitive choices for consumers?
  • Why shouldn’t networks continue to be able to offer different benefits, features and prices to consumers?
  • Why should all networks be required to be the same?

Increase the budget deficit.

  • Why reduce the revenues collected for the U.S. Treasury during a period of record budget deficits, by undermining the FCC’s broadband wireless spectrum auctions with the investment disincentive of new broadband regulation?

In conclusion, I believe that so far the debate over net neutrality debate has been “more heat than light.� We believe the debate between net neutrality and net competition needs more substance. Everyone needs to get clearer about what we are actually talking about, more straight-forward about the facts, and more up front about the implications and consequences of this issue.

Simply, my point of view is that: the best way to guard a free and open Internet, is free and open competition, not more government control of the Internet.