Misunderstanding Network Neutrality 2

Drew Clark at GigaOm reports on the outcry among network neutrality supporters over concerns that Google is backing away from its pro-neutrality position. This is a big misunderstanding, but it highlights the weakness of the current net neutrality debate on both sides.

As I explain in my Only Connect paper, there are two ways to think about network neutrality, and about the broader challenge of network infrastructure policy. One is to focus on discrimination. That’s what most net neutrality proponents do, following the argument of Columbia law professor Tim Wu. The problem is that discrimination is hard to define, hard to demonstrate, and not always bad.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. The better way to understand network neutrality is to focus on interconnection: the rich web of open connectivity between unaffiliated networks that makes the Internet, well, the inter-net. Potential actions by dominant network operators to break the Internet interconnection model are what will cause the innovation-killing effects that network neutrality proponents are (justifiably) concerned about. And making rules for interconnection turns out to be much easier than doing so for discrimination.

In concrete terms, here’s the difference. What Google’s global policy counsel (and in full disclosure, my friend and law school classmate) Andre McLaughlin said to kick of the firestorm was that differentiated quality of service (QOS) is OK, as long as it’s available to anyone who will pay. This is no different than the current situation, where all major websites pay a content delivery network (CDN) such as Akamai, or pay to self-provision a CDN, in order to deliver popular content quickly and efficiently to their users. Those who don’t pay for CDNs are disadvantaged, just like those who don’t buy enough bandwidth for their network connections, but that’s their economic choice. Sure, the startup YouTubes of the world can’t afford the CDN overhead on day one, but if they take off, that’s where the venture funding, and revenue flows, and Google buyout dollars go. And we should keep in mind, as a Google spokesperson told Clark, that most of the QOS notions that network operators are floating simply don’t work in practice.

So, put aside all the conspiracy theories. If supporters of network neutrality don’t have room in their big tent for the view Andrew expressed, they are really in trouble. (Taking a few comments from one company representative out of context doesn’t help either.)

Trust me, I’m on the side of the debate that sees a threat to the future of the Internet. I’ve been there since at least 1999, when I wrote an issue of Release 1.0 called “The Architecture of Internet 2” about the danger closed broadband networks posed for innovation and user empowerment. It important, though, to see the issues for what they really are.

2 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Network Neutrality

  1. Fazal Majid Mar 15,2007 3:35 am

    It’s not really a conspiracy theory. Google has demonstrated in China that their real motto is “Don’t be evil, unless it’s inconvenient not to be”. They’d be happy to sell the small people down the river.

    You have a very US-centric view of things. Network neutrality is only an issue in the US, mostly because every other place on Earth has government breaking up monopolies and fostering competition, even in formerly dirigiste France. Of course, our venal members of Congress are easily bought by the Telcos and Cablecos (some of the largest campaign contributors around) to turn a blind eye to anticompetitive practices.

    Imagine the AT&T-Comcast-Verizon hydra gets its way and the unfettered freedom to discriminate against disruptive services not offered by themselves, or other big business acolytes like Google. Will that kill the Internet? Hardly, just the American part of it. If you think we are lagging badly behind in broadband today…

    The end result of the end of network neutrality is not the end of the Internet, but rather America permanently consigned to also-ran status in the information age, and American citizens ultimately as deprived of freedom as Chinese under the yoke of the Great Firewall of China are today.

    Of course, network neutrality legislation is an imperfect substitute for real competition, but it’s better than the alternative, which is to do nothing.

  2. Kevin Werbach Mar 15,2007 11:40 am

    Fazal, I agree with you that US broadband policy today lags most of the rest of the industrialized world in catalyzing investment and deployment.

    That’s not the issue here. France and Japan and other countries aren’t succeeding because they prohibit their dominant telcos from using packet prioritization schemes. They don’t. They have better broadband because they got local loop unbundling right. We screwed it up.

    And guess what? That’s an interconnection decision, not a non-discrimination one.

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