Growing the Net With or Without Neutrality

I was going to write in favor of classifying telecoms as telecoms (i.e., making them common carriers). But I think it misses the point, which is: how do we as a society best ensure the natural and unfettered growth of the Internet?

I will mention the issue of Network Neutrality briefly. It is the concept that a telecom or Internet service provider (ISP) must provide equal “best-effort delivery” of all data going across its network. That it cannot and must not give special treatment based on private contracts with the endpoints.

But it appears that the argument ought be moot. Consider the total value of commerce taking place over the Internet. We ought to leverage that massive sum: a cursory search estimated $8 trillion USD globally in 2011. I am not particularly big on taxation, but a modest tax (or fee) from that could easily fund massive development of the network.

Content delivery is probably only a minute portion of the total revenue, with online sales and advertising being larger pieces. But regardless, the Internet is making a lot of money for a lot of industries, all of which can benefit from a faster, broader Internet.

Does Network Neutrality harm or help convince that investment? Does the oligopoly of telecoms in the USA help or hinder? Consider the best analog to the Internet: roads.

We do differentiate some road traffic. We let police vehicles and emergency vehicles ignore certain signals under certain circumstances. We also have carpool lanes and lanes for energy-efficient vehicles, to promote conservation of the resource. We have weigh stations for commercial traffic on major roadways to pay for higher upkeep. We also have some toll roads.

But the average person (who belongs to the car class; obviously the current, dominant transportation system has its own glaring problems, which I am ignoring here) can still get in their vehicle and cross the country without much hassle. Certainly without their car’s manufacturer or their hotel or anyone paying for the privilege.

That core system should be sanctified through law or regulation. The core ability to engage the network is fast becoming a recognized natural right.

But what about those other caveats of roads? Do they have a place on the Internet?

I think they have a place, if and only if we do enshrine neutrality into the basic system, and if and only if they are clearly differentiated and regulated. Moreover, the speed limits of physical roads do not apply to networks.

It would be absurd to fix the common path at some speed, or even to build it into law or regulation that could be neglected. The common speed should be growing as long as technology allows. At some point we will undoubtedly have no more need for the analog’s extras. That in 100 years time, could we still possibly need toll roads for network traffic? Doubtful.

No, the question we face is one of growth and economics, not of legacy. I believe if a Netflix or a Valve wants to pay to send their data to someone in excess of that person’s natural connection speed (the natural speed ought be regulated/protected from economically artificial tampering by ISPs), that’s perfectly reasonable so long as they have every right not to make that deal and still receive best-effort delivery.

In other words, if we can have enhancement-only partiality, strictly regulated, and possibly taxed, it may be acceptable.

The main caveat is the lack of regulatory agencies that have the chutzpah to actually prosecute malfeasance. Without that, the whole thing is a wash.