Net Neutrality Debate Grows More Absurd

Fred Dawson, Editor, ScreenPlays MagazineWith publication of the article "The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet" the September edition of Wired Magazine contributed much-needed perspective on the Net neutrality argument just as Google and Verizon were announcing their agreement on that subject.

While the article doesn't mention the Net Neutrality debate, it reminds us of how far Internet commerce has come from reliance on the open World Wide Web model to engagement with users through closed app-driven networks that utilize the basic routing foundation of the Internet and Traffic Control Protocols to deliver content along with quality and functionality enhancements that people are willing to pay for. Today, the article says, people using Web browsers to access HTML-based sites account for less than a quarter of all Internet traffic, with the rest going to everything from email, VoIP and corporate VPNs to games, peer-to-peer traffic and semi-closed commercial sites like iTunes, Netflix, Xbox and much else.

Critics of the article have scoffed at the inclusion of email, VoIP and some of other categories as a measure of how small the proportion of Web traffic is to overall Internet traffic, rightly noting that, when it comes to apples-to-apples comparisons of how the Internet is used to access content and applications, HTML is overwhelmingly dominant. But the important point as all this relates to Net neutrality is that the Internet is not and never has been a neutral environment for commerce.

Verizon and Google in effect are saying that, as long as network operators are not allowed to impede or discriminate against traffic that operates over the public Internet – Web-based or otherwise – they should be allowed to get in the game of making money from the value-add commodities they bring to the table, namely, enhanced bandwidth and functionalities, just as Apple can make money off its value adds. This is pretty much the position this page has always taken, going back to when we criticized Google for arguing the opposing view (March 2006, p. 6).

But, wait. There's a strange twist to their proposal, which says that, when it comes to controls exerted over wireless broadband facilities, there should be no Net neutrality restrictions. How does that make any sense?

Well, they say, it makes sense insofar as the spectrum and facilities mobile operators have invested in are limited resources they have a right to monetize as best they can, as long as there's plenty of competition. But, if you make that argument for wireless facilities costs, why can't you make it for wired access networks?

The FCC, pending further discussion about the Verizon-Google proposal, has put off making a decision on how to proceed with Net neutrality. Now that the courts have overturned its effort to regulate the Internet as an information service, the commission's chairman has proposed a reversion to regulating the Internet under telecommunications rules with significant modifications.

The tortured process involving commissioners meeting behind closed doors with big players to see if everyone can be persuaded to agree on some kind of Rube Goldberg construction attests to the impossibility of trying to forge rules under a 76-year-old act. The nation needs a policy regime that fits the 21st Century, which in the current political environment is beyond hope. Thus, the bet here is that whatever comes of this current round, somebody will defeat it in the federal courts.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how the commission addresses the proposed dichotomy between treatment of the mobile and wired links to the Internet. To suggest that there's any basis for such a split is to ignore the fact that, with ever more spectrum allocated and 4G coming on strong, any policy that accords an advantage to purveyors who happen to deliver their services over the air would constitute an untenable government intrusion favoring one type of business over another.