Last November, Jeff Richards, VP of VeriSign's Digital Content Services, suggested to me that "net neutrality" would be the hottest broadband video topic in 2008. I was skeptical, believing that this was a classic "solution in search of a problem" and that yet again this topic would fail to gain traction among regulators and policy-makers. Based on events of the past week, it looks like Jeff may be right and I may be wrong.
Before getting to what happened this week, let's quickly understand what net neutrality means, and why it's important to all of us. To date the Internet has functioned as a level playing field of sorts. Anyone putting up a web site could be confident in the knowledge that broadband ISPs would neither favor nor disadvantage one player's access to users over another's.
Big online content and technology companies now want to codify this tradition in legislation commonly referred to as net neutrality. Big broadband ISPs (i.e. cable operators and telcos) regard this as needless regulatory meddling that would insert the government in network and technical matters it can barely understand, let alone figure out how to regulate.
This week brought news that Congressmen Ed Markey and Chip Pickering have introduced the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008" which would make net neutrality the guiding U.S. broadband policy, give the FCC additional oversight powers to ensure broadband ISPs weren't discriminating against certain traffic, require the FCC to hold 8 public "broadband summits" to bring together parties to "assess competition, consumer protection and consumer choice issues related to broadband Internet access services" and finally to report all this to Congress along with any recommendations for how to "promote competition, safeguard free speech, and ensure robust consumer protections and consumer choice relating to broadband Internet access services."
Broadband ISPs have precipitated some of this renewed interest in net neutrality with the recent news that they're de-prioritizing or blocking illegal video file-sharing traffic from services like BitTorrent (all of which was already widely understood in the Internet community). Net neutrality proponents have publicly seized on these incidents as evidence that broadband ISPs have discriminatory tendencies in their DNA, and that we're on a slippery slope to a world where broadband ISPs willy-nilly block certain traffic (i.e. their competitors) while favoring other traffic (i.e. their own services).
Last November in "Net Neutrality in 2008? Let's Hope Not." I wrote that there is no substantive current evidence to support this concern and that preemptive net neutrality legislation is unwise and unwarranted. In fact, I believe it's a net positive that broadband ISPs are proactively trying to manage their networks to ensure that legal traffic, generated by paying subscribers, is not adversely affected by the few heavy video file-sharers who diminish the network's performance for everyone. Broadband ISPs' actions help them run more efficient networks and better manage their investments, to the benefit of paying users.
Unfortunately, like many things in Washington, net neutrality is boiling down to a PR battle about how to shape policy-makers' perceptions, regardless of the underlying facts. For its part, Google is unabashedly framing this debate in populist terms, saying "net neutrality is...about what's ultimately best for the people, in terms of economic growth as well as the social benefit of empowering individuals to speak, create, and engage one another online." Huh? How does all that patriotic-sounding babble address the reality that network operators are grappling with 15 year-old kids downloading pirated HD movies, causing real and serious network congestion for everyone?
To defeat net neutrality, broadband ISPs better sharpen up their PR efforts. Congress is notoriously IQ-challenged and politically-motivated. My cynical belief is that its knee-jerk reaction will always be to do what looks best, rather than what actually is best. Then there's the current FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who has a serious anti-cable bias and will likely welcome an opportunity to smack operators. Regrettably, when taken together, Jeff Richards may indeed be right. This might be the hottest broadband video topic of 2008 and the year when net neutrality legislation finally does succeed.