Net neutrality – there are arguments on both sides


Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success.
—Vinton Cerf in testimony before Congress February 7, 2006

The issue of net neutrality is not that simple though.  Broadly seen as a dispute between the technology and hardware providers against the users, there are arguments on both sides.

To start with, Wiki defines Net Neutrality this way:

A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on content, sites, or platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed, as well as one where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams.

Net neutrality advocates argue that allowing cable companies, or what is termed “content gatekeepers”, to demand a toll to guarantee quality or premium delivery would create what Tim Wu calls unfair business model.

Google, as a user, puts up this argument:

There’s been a lot of noise out there, but let’s review what’s at stake: The Internet was built and has thrived as an open platform, where individuals and entrepreneurs — not network owners — can connect and interact, choose marketplace winners and losers, and create new services and content on a level playing field. No one seems to disagree with that fundamental proposition.

Opponents of net neutrality include large hardware companies and members of the cable and telecommunications industries.

Andrew Coburn, vice-president of Catastrophe Research at Risk Management Systems, says there is potential for a major overload, if not a full crash. Coburn says that while we can cope at current traffic levels, an external event like a terrorist attack or a flu pandemic could easily overload the network:

“A massive increase in traffic that resulted in overloads of router buffers and caused localised and progressive failure through the network is one of our major concerns.”

Johna Till Johnson, of PC World disagrees that there’s any imminent crash:

Here’s why: Internet usage continues to grow dramatically — between 50% and 100% year over year. That’s not a problem in the core, which has more capacity than it needs for the foreseeable future.

However, the potential for one is in the offing:

But access circuits (both wired and wireless) are bandwidth-constrained — and excruciatingly expensive to upgrade (ask Verizon how much it has spent on FiOS). Net neutrality prohibits carriers from recouping those costs by charging differentially based on type of content or quality of service.

That means as user demand increases, carriers have just one option for recouping their costs: Charge by the bit. And that, in turn, will have a domino effect on peering arrangements. Tier-one providers now peer for free with each other. Once they have no choice but to charge for bandwidth, free peering will go away. And one of two things will happen then — both unpleasant. Either user costs go up (to cover the costs of peering), or more likely, carriers won’t bother to peer in the first place (because they can’t charge users enough to recoup the costs of peering).

Guess what? When peering goes away, so does the Internet — because you’re no longer able to connect to anywhere from anywhere. A site on one network won’t be visible to users on other networks, unless the site owner is rich enough to buy connections to multiple networks.

Bret Swanson from the Wall Street Journal said that YouTube, MySpace and blogs are put at risk by net neutrality. Swanson says that YouTube streams as much data in three months as the world’s radio, cable and broadcast television channels stream in one year, 75 petabytes.

Some opponents of net neutrality argue that prioritisation of bandwidth is necessary for future innovation on the Internet.  Telecommunications providers such as telephone and cable companies, and some technology companies that supply networking gear, argue telecom providers should have the ability to provide preferential treatment in the form of a tiered services, for example by giving online companies willing to pay the ability to transfer their data packages faster than other Internet traffic. The added revenue from such services could be used to pay for the building of increased broadband access to more consumers.

David Coursey argues that the very act of the FCC ensuring net neutrality is a restriction in itself:

Proponents describe net neutrality as being right up there with religious freedom, Mom, and apple pie. However, if the FCC decides to make net neutrality the law, that is exactly what it will be: A law intended to protect one set of freedoms at the expense of another.

Essentially, what it comes down to is that the people who use the net a lot do not want an alteration in its terms of access – this means from every new blogger, up to Google.  People who provide the hardware and those net pioneers who are still innovative say it can’t be done without money and someone has to pay, to create the incentive to develop the net.

Net neutrality proponents argue back that there’s no need to develop the net further – that it is an open platform and its success is almost wholly dependent on that, on everyone being able to feely communicate with anyone else.  While hearing the concerns of the infrastructure providers, the fear is that those providers will slip in “gatekeeper” capability and that is seen, in tech terms, as tantamount to evil.

6 comments for “Net neutrality – there are arguments on both sides

  1. October 24, 2009 at 10:04

    Why would a flu pandemic make the internet crash?

    And of course it will crash every now and then, and then they’ll fix it, add on loads more capacity and we’ll keep going until we crash again. If anything, doesn’t the internets just slow down (assuming there is a maximum capacity that broadband can carry)? And that puts people off using it for the time being, so usage always remains such that we are on the verge of grinding to a halt but never quite doing so?

  2. October 24, 2009 at 10:08

    Sort of like Father Christmas almost dying out but not quite? But yes, as was said by one of those quoted – there’ll be quite some time before it reaches any sort of criticality.

  3. October 24, 2009 at 10:38

    Unless you know something I don’t we pay for internet access, it is a service, would you expect the manufacturer of your car to tell you when and where you can drive?

    If the providers don’t like the arrangement then let them get out, the manufacturers of the hardware and cable networks (which by the way are already installed to most of the homes in the country) are only in it for profit and what their products are used for is none of their business.

    Doesn’t the rights of the majority take precedence over the rights of industry, isn’t that what democracy is all about?

  4. ivan
    October 24, 2009 at 10:40

    It is obvious – money. Because people are demanding, or at least being told, higher speed is necessary, we have the providers advertising higher speeds and bandwidth which they are unable to provide unless they upgrade their infrastructure. So as I said it all boils down to money, just as you conclude.

  5. October 24, 2009 at 13:31

    Net neutrality is central to what makes the internet great, and to the benefits it has brought humanity. And what is the argument for doing so? Flu pandemic? Terrorism? So, the same arguments that are used to take away all our other freedoms. Furthermore, the FCC’s involvement in the matter looks like a power-grab.

  6. October 25, 2009 at 02:28

    So how would net partiality work?

    It seems to me that Microsoft tried that about 12 years ago, with streaming. It didn’t catch on, and I think they’ve dropped it.

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