Network or "net" neutrality, a confusing legislative concept being promoted by large online and content players, may be the hottest broadband video topic in 2008, at least according to Jeff Richards, VP of VeriSign's Digital Content Services, who makes his case at his blog Demand Insights.
I had the pleasure of informally debating net neutrality's merits with Jeff (who's officially neutral on the subject by the way) over cocktails at a VeriSign customer event I just spoke at. Jeff is persuasive about why net neutrality is such a hot button issue, and that its resolution - one way or another - has broad repercussions across the technology, content and Internet industries.
First, a primer for those not familiar with net neutrality. 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, a classic "solution in search of a problem" that would unnecessarily limit their future business dealings and influence their investment decisions.
Interest in net neutrality legislation has waxed and waned, as lobbyists for the pro-net neutrality side (content and technology firms) try to convince legislators that this really is an important issue for constituents and that this isn't just a "rich vs. richer" debate that should be left to the industry's participants to figure out, while anti-net neutrality lobbyists (cable and telco firms) argue the opposite point of view.
So what might precipitate the resurgence of interest in passing net neutrality legislation? In two words, broadband video.
As Jeff points out, the massive adoption of broadband video, which still disproportionately comes from illegal video file-sharing networks, is motivating ISPs to reevaluate current policies. Stoking this reevaluation is the awakening that the really big money is now being made by legitimate companies like Google (current market cap $200+ billion) which ride freely over ISPs' networks. As such, ISPs are wondering whether the balance of economics has gotten out of whack and if they can get a bigger share of the pie.
Some ISPs are now blocking or "shaping" certain types of traffic. The most recent example that came to light was Comcast, who the AP recently found is blocking BitTorrent's traffic in the Bay Area. Comcast's vague response, coupled with ill-thought out earlier remarks from telco executives about their own business intentions, have inflamed conspiracy theorists' worst fears about what kind of world could result absent immediate net neutrality action.
Yet for me, preemptive net neutrality legislation can only be justified if you buy into one or both of the following two assumptions.
First, that any new premium tier of service ISPs may want to sell to certain preferred providers (e.g. Google is search engine of choice, so its results somehow load faster) must, by definition, mean that some other provider is disadvantaged as a result. But this presupposes a zero-sum ISP network, which is not true. To enable a high quality-of-service ("QOS") tier for preferred partners does not technically necessitate a degrading other non-preferred services. Not to mention degrading other services would be a foolish, provocative thing for ISPs to do.
The second assumption is that regardless of whether ISPs create QOS-enabled premium tiers, they cannot be trusted not to block or harmfully shape traffic, whether it's legitimate or not. While there have been random acts of blocking by smaller ISPs, this does not seem to be a rampant problem right now. And it's important to distinguish between blocking legitimate vs. illegitimate traffic. For instance, when Comcast blocks illegitimate P2P file-sharing traffic then to me that's a good thing. It frees up network resources for the rest of us who are paying to use the network for legitimate purposes. I'm not going to cry for some 15 year-old kid who can't speedily download a pirated copy of the latest Hollywood thriller, nor should you.
While the pro-net neutrality folks obviously believe ISPs will be bad actors, to my mind, even if you make the above assumptions, this does not form the basis for preemptive net neutrality action now. Sure it's tempting to believe that cable and telco companies, still with plenty of monopolistic DNA flowing through their corporate veins, would indeed act unfairly, for now it is most appropriate to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Washington's laissez-faire attitude toward Internet regulation has been one of the key reasons for the Internet's continued innovation and growth. Attacking broadband video and the Internet, which are among the last few bastions of economic growth left in America is unwise, particularly given the fact that the "law of unintended consequences" is virtually synonymous with all recent telecommunications regulation. Preemptively impose network neutrality and who knows what the actual result will be.
So for now net neutrality regulation should stay on the backburner. When and if it's appropriate, it can be re-prioritized. Instead, I'd prefer keeping Washington's focus on cleaning up a separate, larger and far more pressing problem caused by another rush to preemptive government action (hint, it starts with an "I" and ends with a "Q").