Sunday, October 18, 2009

Net neutrality: Innovation protection or unnecessary regulation

I consider myself a Libertarian on most issues. I'm generally in favor of the government getting out of the way of private innovation. For that reason, I became opposed to net neutrality as soon as I learned that it involved government intervention into the affairs of (arguably) private businesses: the internet service providers.

However, after learning more about the net neutrality issue and reading about the FCC's new net neutrality rules, I have decided to write a brief summary of the issue in favor of net neutrality.

What is net neutrality?

The issue of net neutrality is about the internet service providers' handling of information flowing through the internet. Information is transmitted over the internet in packets of information. ISPs can examine these packets to determine what type of information they are carrying. For example, an ISP can tell whether a user is watching a YouTube video, downloading email, or browsing Amazon.

For the most part, ISPs don't care about what type of information is being transmitted, but that is beginning to change. ISPs have realized that they can reduce the load on their networks by slowing down certain types of packets. This practice makes sense as a way to combat piracy by slowing down illegal traffic, but several ISPs have begun to use it to arbitrarily discriminate against certain types of traffic.

For example, Cox recently decided to make all FTP and P2P traffic slower, ostensibly to increase the speed of its other services. Although this may improve the service to most of its customers, it could be used for more nefarious purposes. For example, data being delivered from its partner's websites could be prioritized, slowing down all other traffic. Cox could even slow down a particular type of data in order to offer the full speed for a higher price.

Net neutrality legislation and policy attempts to stop this practice by forbidding ISPs from discriminating for or against any type of traffic.

Why should the government get involved?

Until recently, I didn't have an adequate answer to this question, so I couldn't justify the expense to the government and ISPs that net neutrality policy would create. I thought that competition between ISPs would prevent any overbearing packet filtering. However, according to Congress' most recent net neutrality bill, "the overwhelming majority of residential consumers subscribe to Internet access service from 1 of only 2 wireline providers: the cable operator or the telephone company." If both of these all-important ISPs decide to moderate your traffic, you won't have any other options.

Who opposes net neutrality?

Two major groups of companies oppose net neutrality for two separate but similar reasons. Most major ISPs providing high-speed internet are opposed to net neutrality because it limits their ability to profit from their high-speed internet services. Not only would net neutrality prevent them from reducing network load by slowing down some types of traffic, but also it would keep them from differentiating themselves from other ISPs by offering extra speed on certain applications. For example, net neutrality would prevent an ISP from making videos stream faster by prioritizing them over other traffic.

In addition, the high-speed wireless ISPs Verizon and AT&T have teamed up to oppose net neutrality on different grounds. Because both operate massive wireless data networks, they want to reserve the right to manage their traffic. They argue that because there is a fundamental limit to how much data can be transmitted through the wireless spectrum, they should be able to reduce the strain on their networks by slowing down high-volume traffic.

The problem with their argument is that packet filtering isn't the only way to limit network traffic. Net neutrality would allow them to limit data usage by setting customer data limits or reducing the speed of all traffic. The only thing the plan prevents is slowing down packets based on the information they contain.

What can I do?

Contact your congressman in support of H.R.3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 and the FCC's recent action on net neutrality. The second point is important because some congressmen believe the FCC has overstepped its boundaries by declaring net neutrality rules while the House of Representatives was debating the issue. The FCC's rules will accelerate the enforcement of net neutrality, and that can't happen soon enough.