Net Neutrality: Bedrock Principle or Intrusive ‘Performance’ Barrier?


By Terry Calhoun

We’re hearing more about “Net Neutrality.” Mostly, that’s because large broadband access providers are, in general, talking aloud about creating premium Internet services that would violate “network neutrality.” Although some countries have legislated network neutrality, the United States has not. So legally they can get away with it. I hope they don’t.

What is the opposite of network neutrality? Perhaps it is the existence of “discriminatory networks” (discnet). Why would some companies want to create discriminatory networks? Perhaps it’s for more profits and fear of changing competitive pressures as Web 2.0 evolves in the near- to mid-future?

What d'es a discriminatory network look like? What we’re talking about here is “concierge service” or “first class.” You know, like where about 20 people get to share an entire airplane bathroom for themselves while everyone else lines up at the back of the plane, bumping against other people, waiting for their turn.

But in this case, the “first class” is for bulk e-mail advertisers who can afford to pay extra to get their messages into your bathroom (I mean inbox.) ahead of or instead of everyone else’s.

You can find everything you need to know at on Wikipedia. Here’s a brief explanation of the broad meaning of the term:

Network neutrality is a principle of network operational architecture. It means that the network is operated under the three principles of neutrality: non-discrimination, interconnection, and access. The principles can apply to any network. They govern the operation of the network, not the content or business practices of the network operator. Inherent in the definition is that network operations are distinct from the content side. Network neutrality is one way to describe the operational architecture of the global Internet. Nearly every nation operating a portion of the Internet has adopted some form of the neutrality principle. Even countries like China that intercept certain content do not violate neutrality principles.

- Wikipedia, “network neutrality,” May 2, 2006

Works for me.

Unsurprisingly, much of the most recent fuss about network neutrality is from AOL’s proposal for its Goodmail CertifiedEmail system. Goodmail pre-certifies (whatever that turns out to mean) bulk e-mail senders and then charges them a fee for guaranteeing that AOL’s spam filters won’t intercept their messages on their way to consumers.

AOL says this is good for consumers because (a) they won’t pay any extra to get these messages and (b) they’ll know that it’s coming from honest-to-goodness pre-certified real companies. Really, all I did was paraphrase a bit: “Consumers will not pay anything. CertifiedEmail messages can be opened with full confidence because the CertifiedEmail trust symbol next to the message means it is from an authentic sender.” Uh-huh.

This is kind of a Tragedy of the Commons (ToC) situation, where corporate interests could truly mess up a good thing for everyone. Although traditionally, ToC applies to the actions of individuals, not corporations. It seems as though AOL’s entire life as a company has had as a core business principle, “Make money for shareholders by creating limited-access portions of the Internet that not everyone can get into.”

That worked in the early years, primarily because consumers didn’t understand the Internet and the cornucopia of information available due to network neutrality. But we got wise. Now the philosophy seems to be “Damn the neutral network, full speed ahead,” as AOL tries to maximize the value it gets from the Internet at the possible expense of much of the overall value of the Internet to ordinary people: Déjà vu.

Those who favor discriminatory networks argue that they just want to be able to manage their own network the way they wish to manage it. Their strongest arguments come from noting that legislation to mandate network neutrality could evolve into a nastier creature that intrudes regulatory fingers into spaces they shouldn’t reach.

I’m sympathetic to the overregulation fears. On the other hand, I’m unsympathetic regarding any e-mail filtering system that d'es not let me tune it the way I want it tuned. I’ve already experienced what happens when an ISP implements filtering that I can’t control, and keeps things from getting to me that maybe I want. (Not fun.) I don’t care to experience an ISP deciding that what I might consider spam is going to get delivered to my inbox whether I like it or not because someone paid extra money for concierge e-mail delivery service.

Proponents of discnet found a strange bedfellow in Esther Dyson. She maybe favors discriminatory networks due to free market principles. Her essay “You’ve Got Goodmail,” in the New York Times generated a lot of excitement. (You can’t read the Times version unless you’ve paid for the “concierge” level access called “TimesSelect,” but a version of it is posted here also. She joins the discriminatory network crowd when she says, “I agree that pretty soon sending most e-mail will cost money, but I think that's only right. It costs money to guarantee quality and safety. Moreover, I think the market will work, and that it will not shut out deserving senders, if we only let it work freely.”

Luckily, most other providers are not (yet) following AOL’s lead. Yahoo! sort of did, but then sort of didn’t. More recently, Google has rejected AOL’s lead, leaving AOL looking like what one observer called “the black sheep of the industry.”

That’s good news. Now, if only we can maintain ‘net neutrality in access without the legislative intervention of Congress. That would be nice.

P.S. Egad. Those were to be the last words in this piece. However, as this g'es to my editor, I’ve just learned that “Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee released telecom reform draft legislation Monday that touches on a number of wide ranging issues but leaves network neutrality to further Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study.” And this: “Verizon and AT&T plan to charge content and service providers different fees based on bandwidth consumption to access consumers, a business model that would be permissible under both the House and Senate proposals.”
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