Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The End of the Internet? (Part two)

Following up on a previous post, I've been doing a lot of thinking about net neutrality, trying to understand exactly what it's all about and where I stand. While I can't say I've come up with a definitive answer, I have found some good material (thanks to Slashdot) that helps shine some light on the subject. First, the Wikipedia has a great (though somewhat technical) entry on net neutrality. CNN also recently ran editorials both for and against net neutrality.

One thing that is important to understand through all the FUD is that companies and consumers already pay different amounts for the bandwidth that they consume. A DSL line costs less than a higher capacity T3. Another key point is that different Internet applications require different quality of service (QoS) levels. Video and VOIP require low latency connections whereas web surfing and email do not.

What I can say in favor of net neutrality is that without regulation there is a real risk that telecommunications companies will abuse their power in a way that will stifle innovation and competition on the Internet. On the other hand, one of the best arguments I've read against net neutrality comes from an unexpected source:
It's true, of course, that ISPs could misuse their control of the onramps to the Internet in a shortsighted attempt to extract monopoly rents, rather than benefit consumers. But that's not a reason for preemptive regulation; it's a reason to see what happens. "In my view," said then–Federal Communications Commission Chair Michael Powell after blocking one local telephone/broadband provider's attempt to cut users off from Internet telephone services, "the surest way to preserve 'Net Freedom' is to handle these issues in an enforcement context where hypothetical worriers give way to concrete facts and, as we have shown today, real solutions." That's sound advice: Hasty regulation that responds to hypothetical abuses may also prevent us from discovering benefits we haven't yet hypothesized.
Perhaps this is the most moderate argument of them all.


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