Science & Technology

No More Net Neutrality?


Earlier this week, Google, long one of the most vocal proponents of Net neutrality, and Verizon, one of Net neutrality's most active opponents, announced that they had come to a broad mutual understanding about how they believe the rules and regulations governing web traffic ought to be structured. In a joint statement, the companies outlined seven key elements, which you can read here.  But the gist is that both agree that blocking content outright on wireline Net connections should be off limits, but prioritized services should be allowed, and neutrality rules ought not apply to wireless networks.

Their proposal would codify and clarify the FCC's power to enforce non-discrimination rules on wireline networks, ensuring that the power the FCC attempted to exercise in its recent case against Comcast would be enforceable. But the boost to the FCC's power would be limited; if the proposed framework were to be adopted, the agency would have far less authority than under the change in broadband's regulatory classification that the agency  has sought in recent months.

Would this mean the end of the Internet as we know it? Neutrality advocates are certainly pushing an apocalyptic vision. In yesterday's New York Times, Tim Wu, who originally coined the term Net neutrality, warned that if the proposal were to be adopted, non-commercial sites like Wikipedia would "get slower and harder to use." In the same space, Larry Lessig complained that the White House is pushing the FCC to be cautious in making Net neutrality policy and likened its cautious approach to the deregulation of Wall Street.

I wonder, though, how a proposal in which the FCC's authority to enforce wireline non-discrimination is codified and, in fact, strengthened counts as "deregulation." Nor do I see much evidence that Wikipedia or other non-commercial sites would become harder to use. We might see, say, high-quality streaming video sites get faster, or the development of dedicated "traffic lanes" open only to bandwidth-intensive applications. And we might see content providers make deals with infrastructure owners for higher quality service. But the Wikipedias of the world would almost certainly continue to operate exactly as effectively as they do now.

At The Washington Post, Celia Kang notes that, under the terms of the deal, "Verizon could block an application such as Microsoft's Bing search service from its subscribers' mobile phones, or it could charge consumers extra for access to certain popular applications delivered at better quality than other Web sites." If you want something to worry about, this is probably it (although I suspect that consumer pressure would push providers to exercise a lot of caution in blocking competing services). But even still, how is this really all that different from the choices consumers make in the current mobile marketplace? Anyone looking to buy a mobile data device must already choose between a variety of phones, operating systems, networks, and application sets. Buy a Droid, and you don't have access to iTunes, or the App Store. Buy an iPhone, and you're not going to be able to use Verizon's network, or its GPS capabilities. As long as mobile providers aren't misleading customers about what they offer (or what they don't), it hardly seems like a serious worry that consumers must select from a variety of different feature sets.

And, of course, that's the big picture here: allowing and encouraging a diversity of feature sets and service options for content providers and consumers. Neutrality advocates stress the concept of equality for a reason—the goal is to ensure a level of sameness amongst consumers. But when it comes to information-service markets, especially the growing world of mobile data access, not all plans, phones, and networks are created equal. But that's as it should be, because not all consumer needs are the same. Those who want more should be able to pay for it. Those who don't shouldn't have to.