Net neutrality has always been gray to me, not black or white. Wired points this out in a nice article making the rounds today.
The truth is, it may be a fruitless existential argument, like arguing whether or not you have the right to hamburger neutrality — the right to buy an industry standard hamburger (McDonalds?)
Net neutrality probably won’t ever exist because the “Internet” is made up of so many disparate networks and business regulations. There is no there there. Your bits go from your computer to the broadband across a last-mile connection to a central office, where they are then shuttled of to any number of intermediaries before arriving at the final destination.
There are too many variables and business relationships, and some businesses will always have more scale and money to cut out some of the middle-men and develop a more direct pipe. High-Frequency Trading, in which hedge funds engineer special trading networks to get millisecond latency advantages, has proven this. If you have enough money, you can build a network that delivers content as fast as possible.
The Wired article focuses on peering relationships, or private network deals in which large Internet content providers such as Google bypass the plain-vanilla Internet backbone by going to straight to last-mile providers such as Comcast and cutting direct arrangements for handing off traffic. Yes, there’s a reason Google is lightning fast: The company has billions of dollars and the means to engineer traffic.
Net neutrality may be hard to define because there are different dimensions to it, in technological, business, and regulatory senses. Maybe there’s a better way to understand the concept of net neutrality by breaking it down into different components, and see what’s happening with each one. Here are the key elements:
Internet Peering: This is the aforementioned topic of the Wired article, in which larger companies pay for special arrangements to peer their traffic directly with last-mile providers to get to the consumers faster. There are also Content Delivery Network (CDN) services in which a content provider pays for various technological ways to speed up delivery. In my mind, this is a regular free-market operation in which a business is paying for a service that increases the value of its own service. It’s not realistic to believe that all commercial services should automatically get a “level playing field.” Why are some mobile phone providers better than others? Some services will always be better because the businesses choose to invest in quality — which means a better network.
Last-mile Monopolies: This is the greatest threat to the concept of net neutrality, in which you see these gigantic mergers between cable companies and telcos. What happens when you end up in a region where there is only one last-mile provider? The last mile pipe — from the telco central office to your home or business — is where there is the most control in the network. Now imagine that this monopoly becomes so strong that it prioritizes its own services. For example, Comcast decides to slow down Netflix delivery in favor of it’s own Video on Demand (VOD) services. This is an area that must be policed. But the question comes down to legal jurisdiction. At some point there has to be a “decider” that looks at grievances and decides what’s fair. It’s probably a Sherman Antitrust Act issue (U.S. Courts) more than an FCC issue.
FCC Classification of Broadband: The most recent development in the net neutrality arena is the FCC’s attempt to reclassify broadband Internet as a regulated telecom service. This would be a watershed legal development, designed to give the FCC more control over the Internet. In theory the FCC would then have more authority to police last-mile net neutrality issues.
To sum up, net neutrality does not currently exist and may not ever exist. In a legal sense, any semblance of true net neutrality was removed by the 2010 Comcast decision, when the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the FCC could not stop Comcast from slowing down or interfering with traffic from Bit Torrent. That’s how we got where we are today.
The debate going forward looks like it may come down to some highly technical legal maneuverings around these various areas of Internet connectivity.