I had the great pleasure and privilege of speaking at Search Engine Strategies 2008 in San Jose. The topic? Net neutrality. This is the point where your eyes glaze over and the inevitable question, “What is net neutrality?” comes forth. And that’s the point of this article.
The session had very low turnout and Kevin Ryan, the organizer of SES, was there asking to all, “What could we do to increase awareness and attendance?” The issue is important to Kevin, important to me and in fact – it’s important to anyone who makes their living on or uses the Internet.
So What Is Net Neutrality?
Prior to speaking I would periodically get asked, “So, what panel are you on?” When I replied I would generally get a blank stare in return. It appears that the vast majority of the population, even the educated, Internet-savvy population, doesn’t understand the debate over net neutrality (or even know there is a debate to begin with). The fault in this is mine and others who do understand the importance of the issue but who have failed to be passionate about it to others.
The idea of net neutrality seems a simple one. It is the idea that all those little 1s and 0s that float around (let’s call them web pages, downloads, videos and emails) should be treated equally and that under no circumstances should the ISPs be allowed to adjust, degrade or otherwise affect them other than to pass them to the requesting party. Seems simple enough right? So what’s the debate?
The debate is hugely complicated with the providers claiming that they need to manage traffic to provide a solid experience to all and with net neutrality advocates claiming that the ISPs are destined to abuse the ability to manage traffic and that a huge array of issues will likely follow if we give them the ability. They claim that legislation is necessary to insure that all traffic is considered equal and no site, download or other traffic source is adversely affected based of its content type, origin or requesting user.
Again, on the surface it seems fairly simple. The “greedy ISPs” are looking to gouge users and degrade our service and we need the government to protect us. At first glance that’s how I saw it too.
Why Does It Matter?
Depending on which camp you’re in the reasons are different but the message is the same – the wrong decision is going to have wide-spread affects on how the Internet grows and how users and their 1s and 0s are treated. Basically – this issue will determine the health and growth of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet will survive regardless but the questions remain:
- How will we access it?
- How will it be charged?
- How fast will it be?
- How fast will it grow?
- Who will have access?
- What will we be able to access?
Basically, the entire future of the Internet is carried on the back of this issue. An issue that most people aren’t even aware of and even those who do know are having trouble determining which side is actually the correct one.
Those opposing net neutrality legislation could refer to it as a solution looking for a problem, showing clear examples of how issues are being dealt with under current legislation and asserting that any additional legislation will restrict future enhancement. The solution itself may become a problem if it is too broad-reaching.
Opposition would point out that the ISPs are self-serving corporations and that to that end, consumers need protection. That not taking action now will result in a scenario where the abuses will take place and there will be no institutionalized solution.
Here are the main points of both sides:
In The Debate …
My session at the conference was constructed as a debate with Cindy Krum from Blue Moon Works moderating. In the debate I was up against my good friend and the co-host on my radio show Webcology on WebmasterRadio.fm, Jim Hedger of Markland Media. He took the side supporting net neutrality and I opposed it. In truth, we each see both sides of the argument – it’s that kind of issue.
Pro-Net Neutrality Legislation
Jim brought up many good points in his presentation. He illustrated the abuses that have take place recently including ComCast’s blocking of torrent seeding. For those of you unfamiliar with torrents, they are a peer-to-peer file sharing format. ComCast allowed for the download of the file however once downloaded they blocked the user from seeding it. ComCast claims this was in an effort to reduce the effect these users were having on the network.
In August 2008 the FCC stepped in and forced ComCast to cease these actions enforcing the idea that they could not discriminate based on the file type and degrade the service. Jim and other net neutrality advocates claim this as a victory.
In 2007 Verizon blocked pro-abortion text messages to a legitimate list of recipients. They didn’t require legislation or laws however; public outcry forced a reversal of this policy.
Jim painted a bleak future if net neutrality legislation is not passed. A future where ISPs degrade specific websites, provide preferential treatment of other sites based on a payment structure, and promote their own self-interests and web properties through degradation of the alternatives. He would assert that smaller businesses will suffer, unable to pay the fees required to compete with the “big boys”.
These are the common concerns among net neutrality advocates.
Anti-Net Neutrality Legislation
I presented the arguments opposing net neutrality legislation. It was a tougher stance with the room (albeit small) against me from the beginning but the points are legitimate nonetheless – there are solid concerns against net neutrality legislation. In the end however I isolated two main points that are clear.
The first point I brought up was that of the current legislation. As noted above regarding ComCast, there is existing legislation to protect consumers and this legislation works. That is where the argument, “Net neutrality is a solution looking for a problem,” comes from.
In fact, some might argue that even the current legislation is too much and we only need to view the ComCast decision to witness why this might be. ComCast is not allowed to block torrent traffic. Due to this they are looking at other ways to manage bandwidth. The solution they’ve come up with and that they’ll be toying with next year is to monitor all users and when traffic is high on their network – slow the speeds of those using the most.
What this boils down to is that if I was sitting at home downloading a site, chatting on Skype and maybe surfing a bit while doing this there’s a good chance my access would get slowed down just to protect those downloading movies illegally (and yes I am aware that torrents are used for legal downloads as well however I have a feeling that if their only use was legal, they wouldn’t be a problem to the ISPs).
Legitimate traffic may now well be affected negatively to protect “net neutrality”.
The second point (and probably the less popular of my arguments) was that capitalism and consumer choice in a non-monopolistic area is self-regulating. As we saw with Verizon’s blocking of pro-abortion text messages and reaction to the public outcry (which was to let them through) the consumer has enormous influence and when abuses occur, their reaction forces companies to adjust policy.
In the end we will get to choose our providers and the threat of losing business is an excellent motivator.
So Who’s Right?
The problem with asserting who’s right or wrong here is that there is key information missing. We’re trying to give an answer when we don’t really know the question. So far the debate is over net neutrality legislation. What is that? What does it cover? How does it read?
Without knowing this it’s difficult to really know what we’re for or against but the problem is, by the time there’s legislation it’ll likely be to late to back away from it.
It’s also difficult to look at the pro and against supporter lists without having it affect your decision unless you really think about why they’re there. On the pro side we’ve got companies like Google and Facebook (two friendly “little” companies) and on the against side we’ve got telco’s and business organizations (those evil people who just want to make money). In fact, both camps want to make money. Let’s not forget that they may be friendly companies – but both Google and Facebook both have billions of dollars and rely on the networks. This, and not some altruistic believe in a “free internet”, is the true motivation of these companies. They want to make sure their costs aren’t increased simply because they’re some of the biggest sources of Internet traffic, either directly or indirectly. Now, their main arguments may or may not be correct however one has to understand that each voice has its bias and we need to understand that bias rather than simply choosing sides based on which camp looks the nicest.
So What’s The Answer?
While I’d love to be able to give you my honest assessment of the situation, the fact is – the more I learn about the net neutrality issue the less clear the right decision becomes. In discussing this with Cindy and Jim after the debate we agreed that the biggest need right now is awareness and a clear definition of what both camps are seeking, what the legislation would look like and a third party evaluation of how this would impact the Internet as well as some real open dialogue, not just banner waving from both sides.
One thing we do know is that net neutrality legislation would significantly impact the state and future of the Internet – what isn’t terribly clear is how. That’s what we need to know.
The next step in the discussion is public awareness and a serious discussion with both sides and our politicians on the issue. We need to understand exactly what’s at stake, what legislation would look like and how it would impact the ISPs and the consumers. We need to look to the future, understand what is coming in the way of bandwidth requirements, and make sure that the average user will have access to the bandwidth they need and that the ISPs are motivated to insure that it’s there to be had.
When starting my preparation for the debate I leaned towards the net neutrality legislation camp. It seemed like the obvious choice however the more I learned, the more grey it became. Today I find my leanings favoring the anti-net neutrality side. I find that when I think of how the current legislation has protected consumers adequately thus far, how public opinion has forced complete 180’s in others and when I consider how lack-lusterly governments tend to create broad-sweeping laws in areas where the offenses are as-of-yet unknown – it seems prudent to support the current state of affairs, at least until a genuine need for specific net neutrality legislation arises that can’t be address with current legislation.
That said, Jim leans to the other side and he too understands the issue and the arguments on both sides.
Two people who have researched significantly the issue, viewing common concerns from both sides and who, in the end, land on different sides of the fence. Again, it’s that kind of an issue.
We need an open and honest debate on the issue. We need you involved with the discussion and we need those in government who support net neutrality legislation to stand up and explain what they believe it means and what the legislation would look like.
We need to hear all the points from the ISPs in regards to how the legislation would negatively impact services and future development on infrastructure and we need to hear from the pro-net neutrality camp on exactly what needs to be protected that isn’t already and why.
Until then I’ll continue to speak to less-than-packed rooms at conferences whose attendees are greatly affected by the issue – even if they’re not aware of it.
But at least you are now. Now it’s time to educate yourself further and find out for yourself why this issue is of paramount important and what you can do to insure that the Internet remains the highway of information and entertainment that it is, tomorrow and for years to come.
Save The Internet – Save The Internet is a pro-net neutrality site dedicated to providing information supporting the idea of net neutrality legislation. It’s an excellent resource and required reading for anyone who wants to fully understand the issue.
Hands Off The Internet (formerly linked to:http://www.handsoff.org/blog/)– Hands Off The Internet is an equally important website explaining the situation from the side of those opposing net neutrality legislation. As with Save The Internet, it is required reading for anyone who wants to fully understand the issues and what’s at stake.
I would warn all readers; this is not an issue to take sides on, on just face value. Read the two sites noted above and then go further and find blogs, news and other information sources. It’s easy to get a quick, biased opinion on either side but it’s important that we all understand all the issues and all the risks.