As promised, I'm continuing to push further out onto the limb with my five '09 broadband predictions as the week progresses. Today's prediction is that net neutrality legislation will remain dormant for at least another year. Given Barack Obama's campaign statements pledging support for net neutrality, many who hoped it was finally at hand will no doubt be quite disappointed.
I suspect many of you may not even be familiar with net neutrality or why it's relevant so let me offer a short primer. As I wrote back in November of '07, in "Net Neutrality in '08? Let's Hope Not," the Internet has functioned as a level playing field of sorts. Broadband Internet Service Providers have not biased in favor of delivering one web site's content over another's (i.e. their networks have remained neutral). Since the government has maintained a laissez-faire Internet regulatory stance, broadband ISPs' own self interests have aligned nicely with staying neutral. In other words, it made good business sense for them to behave this way.
To simplify somewhat, net neutrality advocates believe that in the broadband video era, "good business sense" cannot be counted upon to ensure ISPs' continued neutrality; hence the need for regulatory intervention. Their concern is that because large ISPs' (namely cable operators and telcos) also operate incumbent multichannel video services and have financial stakes in certain content providers - both of whose financial health would be threatened by open broadband delivery - these ISPs will start to bias toward better delivery of sites in which they have some financial interest or with whom they have a particular deal. This would in turn disadvantage sites outside the ISPs' financial orbit, hurting not just these sites, but also larger democratic goal of consumer choice.
All of these concerns are hypothetically valid. But the problem is that these concerns have not translated into any provable pattern of ISP misbehavior as yet. Having sat through an FCC hearing earlier this year meant to surface such evidence, I can say first-hand that while there are isolated instances of bias which have been compounded by bungled ISP explanations and sophomoric PR miscues, net neutrality advocates have little more than their concerns and assumptions about ISPs' future behavior on which to base their argument for preemptive legislation. And this is precisely the reason why net neutrality will remain dormant for another year, at least.
Net neutrality remains largely a solution in search of a problem. I believe this will put it outside the guiding philosophy of Mr. Obama's regulatory forces. Having read both of Mr. Obama's books and listened to his words intently, I've long since concluded that he's what I call a "principled pragmatist." Mr. Obama has a core set of beliefs about how the world should work, but he chooses his battles wisely and with a focus on solving real, not imaginary problems. Mr. Obama and his team have plenty on their plates addressing the economic mess they're inheriting. Time will not be made available to create rules in any area of business where there's no evident harm to anyone.
This pragmatic approach means that when the rubber meets the road on net neutrality, Mr. Obama and his policy advisors are unlikely to be swayed by the free-speechers and academics who form the core of the net neutrality advocacy camp, unless they're able to bring far more supporting data (note, as the WSJ pointed out earlier this week, net neutrality support even among some content companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo is either waning or becoming ambiguous).
All of this said, it may be politically expedient to throw a small bone to net neutrality's advocates. So we may see some new guidelines introduced, but nothing approaching the level of what some are seeking. The only exception is if broadband ISPs themselves acquiesce, possibly in exchange for infrastructure subsidies that may be part of the planned trillion dollar stimulus program.
Though politics is a notoriously hard business to protect, if in 2009 if broadband ISPs do a good job of behaving themselves, they will likely see net neutrality backburnered. The FCC should be vigilant in monitoring the industry for signs of bias. And if they are able to prove the case, net neutrality will rightly get moved up in prioritization.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
2009 Prediction #1 - The Syndicated Video Economy Accelerates
2009 Prediction #2 - Mobile Video Takes Off, Finally
Tomorrow, 2009 Prediction #4