Inc. Magazine was kind enough to offer me some space to explore ideas about network neutrality – the idea that internet service providers should treat all bits equally, and not prioritize a particular type of service, or, especially, one provider’s content over the other. My op-ed appears in this month’s issue, and just became available online.
I’d hoped to internationalize the conversation about net neutrality a bit – many of my friends who are passionate and smart about the subject, like David Isenberg, tend to focus on net neutrality in the US – in no small part because a major battle over net neutrality is currently shaping up in the US Congress.
I wanted to make it clear that this battle isn’t just about the US – neutrality battles have already taken place in other nations and, in countries where voice over IP has a major presence, have pitted telephone incumbents against upstart internet providers in a way that’s eerily reminiscent of the battle taking place in the US. On the other hand, I wanted to reach Inc’s audience, which is largely business owners in the US… which explains why the piece is, perhaps, less international than most of my writing.
Mike Hofman – who did a great job of editing my ramblings into the Inc. piece – blogs about my piece, and about an op-ed in the Washington Post from Bob Litan, a contributing editor at Inc., which takes a stance counter to the one I support. Litan’s piece has some good bits in it – at the heart of it, he seems to be arguing that customers will eventually have to pay for Internet on a per-bit basis, rather than getting all-you-can-eat bandwidth, a prospect that I don’t find all that disturbing (though I know it alarms many of my friends, who believe that unlimited bandwidth for everyone, at as low a price as possible, is a worthy goal.)
But Bob’s piece doesn’t address my main concern – that network operators might prevent certain types of bits from being transmitted speedily, or at all, if those bits involve a service from a rival company to one’s ISP. If your ISP wants to sell you VOIP phone service and degrades Skype calls on your broadband so that you’ll switch to their service, that’s a major problem in my book. And Bob uses one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book in the intro to his piece – turning a somewhat dry subject into a matter of life and death by telling us that the current state of broadband networks is that they’re so unreliable that they can’t be used for medical device monitoring.
This is pure, unrepentant bullshit that asks us to equate the microsecond delays we experience on congested networks with missed emergency medical calls. Bob’s analysis relies on a non-existent crisis in available bandwidth, an assumption that phone and cable companies won’t build more bandwidth into their networks because they’re so desperately cash-strapped, and that they can’t possibly make money from their successful current Internet business models, but need a form of monopoly protection that allows them to protect their market against content competitors.
Then again, he’s hardly the only one offering spurious arguments. A coalition of telephone companies has launched an “astroturf” campaign designed to make net neutrality supporters look like loonies, supported by big bad Microsoft/Yahoo/Google. Harold Feld has a lovely point-by-point debunking of the campaign, very much worth a look.
As I think back on it, the vast majority of the policy work I did in Africa was, on one level or another, net neutrality work. As Voice over IP became increasingly important in African nations, I was concerned that phone companies would claim authority over any electronic voice traffic, forcing one of the most interesting developments in telephony into illegality to protect their lucrative monopolies… which is precisely what happened in most countries. Some countries are now discovering they have to undo these decisions and make VOIP possible now, because it’s such a powerful technology and economic force, letting people communicate with families overseas because technical innovation and invention has lowered the price of voice transmission.
It would be a shame to see the US make the same mistake many developing nations made almost a decade ago.