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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Musings Upon Network Neutrality, as Prompted by a Disappointing but not Wholly Unexpected Announcement from American Telephone and Telegraph

Wherein Your Faithful Correspondent Tries to Reconcile the Capitalist and Socialist Parts of His Economically Confused Mind

by folkbum

Net neutrality is in the news again, with the Federal Communications Commission considering making that the policy in spite of some court rulings and the intentions of a corporate-funded Congress. Net neutrality is, broadly, the notion that the whole of the internet should be a level playing field, with internet service providers considered to be "common carriers" who cannot discriminate or differentiate in the way they provide services.

There are two things related. One of them is similar to what ATT is about to do with the data plans for its smart phones like the iPhone--something that's weighing on me, personally, as I am seriously considering finally upgrading to an iPhone this summer once the 4Gs are out. The short answer is that ATT is going to be charging more of customers who use more data:
One of the new AT&T plans will cost $25 per month and offer 2 gigabytes of data per month, which AT&T says will be enough for 98 percent of its smart phone customers. Additional gigabytes will cost $10 each.

A second plan will cost $15 per month for 200 megabytes of data, which AT&T says is enough for 65 percent of its smart phone customers. If they go over, they'll pay another $15 for 200 megabytes.
Except for the cheater-y math in plan B ($30 for 400 MB is a ripoff if plan A gets you 2 GB for $25), this is an idea that is reasonable, and one I have some sympathy for when expanded beyond the idea of mere smart phones to broadband or internet access in general. Though the calls to dump your iPhone and boycott ATT have already started, I think that's ridiculous. Like, say, electricity or even land-line phones, if you use more, you can pay more, and, because I am, in fact, a capitalist, I am not so much in favor of the FCC over-regulating broadband and internet service providers in this way.

I do believe that everyone does deserve access, and those whose access is more difficult to achieve, like people in rural areas, should not be punished by geography when it comes to this resource (rural folk pay the same kWh rates as the rest of us). I believe the FCC has a role there to make sure that everyone has access to email, news, and basic research and learning opportunities online without sticking it to the user or throttling users without warning or the opportunity to appeal. And I don't think ISPs have much reason to privilege particular users over others in terms of whose data goes out first and faster (and I don't think there's much of a technical reason to do so except to bleed the gullible who may want to pay a premium for priority). But if an ISP wants to identify, say, people who bittorrent a lot of data and hit them with higher fees, I can get behind that.

With one caveat: Right now ISPs generally do not do a good job, or any job at all, of telling users how much data they are using. There are some--the satellite providers, for example--who do, but I, for one, have absolutely no clue how much data we use at our house. And with my wife and I both active internet users, with Netflix streaming to the Wii (which is awesome, by the way), I'm sure that we're well above average. But if my ISP offered me a menu tomorrow of choices for a data plan that I had to choose, I wouldn't know which to pick.

But there's a second thing going on with net neutrality that is much more important, and it has less to do with the interactions between ISPs and users and more to do with the interactions between ISPs and content providers. And it is here that, because I am, in fact, a socialist, the FCC needs to strictly regulate this aspect of the internet. Here's where things get hairy: When an ISP decides that it wants to make a pact with a content provider to privilege that provider's content. It wouldn't be hard for an ISP to contract with Google to serve up Google's products and pages and search results faster than Hotmail or Bing or Wordpress or Yahoo or whatever. Or to contract with Blockbuster over Netflix, or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over local bloggers and independent publishers.

This kind of non-neutrality, while it might be good for the ISPs and the companies they trade money with, is bad for users and, I think, bad for the development of a strong and vibrant internet. One reason we have such a strong net today is that ISP haven't been making those deals with content providers. New and interesting and exciting technologies have developed because scrappy and creative internet entrepreneurs have been able to serve an unlimited number of customers without fear of being throttled by the people who own the pipes. That may be slightly less true today as content providers find their revenue streams shrinking and they consolidate and slow down innovation. Yet it shouldn't be the ISPs decision as to who lives and who dies as content providers on the web--it should be the users, whose access needs to be unrestricted to any and all corners of the web.

MoveOn,org, among other places, is running a petition drive to maintain that last kind of neutrality, if you want to take some action.

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