June 7, 2006
The Debate Over Network Neutrality

This week, the debate over network neutrality has taken the blogosphere by storm. And, of course, such debates are key for communication that takes place over the net in the first place, considering how important current congressional debates are to the way the Internet works.

The House will decide today whether to allow debate on the floor about abandoning the principle of network neutrality in favor of allowing access providers the chance to favor some sites over others. The rhetoric is strong on this side, led by phone companies, who argue that certain sites use up more bandwidth and that they currently have to treat all types of sites similarly, or neutral, which is an unfair burden on their ability to conduct business.

For those who haven't followed the debate closely, The Washington Post provides an illuminating piece entitled "The Coming Tug of War Over the Internet".

Some are making a deregulationist argument on grounds of true capitalism to support the phone companies, saying that companies should be allowed to get a piece of the action when it comes to providing access to one site over another.

For someone with a fairly strong libertarian bent, the argument would be appealing if it weren't so obvious how heavily this line of thinking encroaches on the content providers that drive the Internet. After all, the phone companies and cable companies that provide everyone internet access would not have much of a business if it weren't for iTunes and Google and the other forces that cause people to want to surf the net in the first place. Obviously, content providers have a lot to lose if bidding begins for access providers to begin giving more bandwidth to some sites to another, and consumer rights groups are lobbying Congress as well.

When something termed "deregulation" instead leads to barriers for a free market, we get into dangerous territory. Net neutrality, as it stands, has allowed a free market to flourish online and has fueled new industry giants and new forms of competition that are unparalleled. All of our debates about transmedia, the power of new providers like iTunes and Urge, and the move toward BitTorrent are all dependent on a neutral battling ground. And it's not like access providers are hurting at this point.

But where does this leave media giants like Time-Warner who are simultaneously involved in both distribution and content? I referenced Erick Schonfeld's recommendations for Time-Warner in a previous blog post. Schonfeld recommends that Time-Warner step into a role solely as content provider and out of a mindset of access provider or distributor, particularly in the AOL branch.

With the divide between Internet access providers and Internet content providers growing greater over this current "network neutrality debate," his words may be growing even more appropriate.

If the proposals make it to the House floor, a vote could come by the end of this week.


On June 8, 2006 at 11:06 AM, Sam Ford said:

A new op-ed piece in The Washington Post by scholars Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney is worth taking a look at, as they defend the importance of network neutrality.