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.