To recap, on 8 June this year,
The U.S. House of Representatives definitively rejected the concept of Net neutrality … By a 269-152 vote that fell largely along party lines, the House Republican leadership mustered enough votes to reject a Democrat-backed amendment that would have enshrined stiff Net neutrality regulations into federal law and prevented broadband providers from treating some Internet sites differently from others. cnet news.com
Given how important the net has become in our lives in such a short space of time, it's striking that, like a number of important things happening in the States of late (other "examples" include the "re-consideration" of America's relationship to the Geneva Convention and the removal of the protection of habeas corpus from any 'alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination', Military Commissions Act 2006), there hasn't been the kind of coverage in the European media of the US net neutrality debate that the subject merits. From what there was, I thought the Guardian background piece in a July Media FAQ article was worth bookmarking, and John Naughton wrote an Observer column in July, As TV tunes into the net, the equality principle drops out.
Last month, Esther Dyson was quoted in a Guardian interview as saying this about net neutrality:
The problem with all of this is that it costs money to distribute rich media. When you have things like this, then either advertisers or consumers have to pay for it. In the dispute over net neutrality, actually, I have a problem with both sides. Really what we need is a Federal Communications Commission that's good at enforcing non-discriminatory action. But when you legislate things you just force people to spend time finding loopholes.
I've admired Esther Dyson whenever I've read something by her before, so that made me sit up as until then I'd thought that things were clear — and my heart was with the net neutralists. Tim Berners-Lee:
I think the importance in [sic 'is'?] that neutrality is well understood by a lot of people, and I think for example outside the United States I haven't heard any concern about it. If you go to Europe and ask somebody about whether they're concerned about Net neutrality, they say, what? You know, people didn't know the phrase. It's only that in the US there were some speeches by executives of large telecommunications companies in which they suggested that maybe they should change the whole way they charge for the Internet and block people like Google, so that Google didn't get connection to their customers, quote, for free, unquote. As though Google doesn't pay for its Internet connectivity.
So I think what happened was that put a scare through. And when you look at...when you look at American industry, you know that companies are beholden to their shareholders to try to make whatever money they can. And so where they can find a business plan which they think will produce larger profits in the short term than they may feel obliged to try to pursue that, even though it might be very completely destructive, it would be destructive of the Internet community, the Internet markets and the amazing phenomenon which is built on top of the Internet at the moment.
So I think in fact Congress will understand the concern. There's a huge education process going on at the moment that a lot of people are taking the trouble to explain to American congress what it means, this important concept that if I've connected to the Internet, and if you've connected to the Internet we can then communicate. Nobody else can then start suddenly charging us extra money to building up because they feel that you're making too much money selling me your audio podcast or something.
I think it's really important that the market for Internet connectivity and the market for content are independent markets. It's thus why the Internet has expanded so quickly, because we've had one group of people working on innovations to the Internet infrastructure, and it's more or less since we started, you know, it's gone up, we're talking about, we started off by talking about thousands of bits per second and now we're talking about millions of bits per second, so that's a factor of a thousand increase in speed, which has happened during the time I suppose that the Web was being developed over the last 15 years.
And a month before that interview, Sir Tim blogged:
Net neutrality is this:
If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.
That's all. Its up to the ISPs to make sure they interoperate so that that happens.
Net Neutrality is NOT asking for the internet for free.
Sir Tim is maintaining and developing the argument. In the NYT for 27 September:
Q. Is your view that the anti-Net neutrality infrastructure actually threatens political democracy? Does it go beyond just the technical structure of the Internet?
A. Net neutrality is one of those principles, social principles, certainly now much more than a technical principle, which is very fundamental. When you break it, then it really depends how far you let things go. But certainly I think that the neutrality of the Net is a medium essential for democracy, yes — if there is democracy and the way people inform themselves is to go onto the Web.
Q. So there are political consequences. Are there are also economic consequences? If so, what are they?
A. I think the people who talk about dismantling — threatening — Net neutrality don’t appreciate how important it has been for us to have an independent market for productivity and for applications on the Internet.
Now, if we compare what you can get into your home with earliest modems, it’s maybe 1,000 times as fast. So that market has been very competitive, very successful.
And I think we wouldn’t have seen this explosion in the exciting, tremendous diversity of the kind of things you see on the Web now. So in the future, obviously, we expect to see many more things. We expect to see, very importantly, television streaming over the Internet, which is going to make a very exciting market in television content and maybe entertainment, maybe educational ideas.
The people deploying these things rely on the fact that the Internet is sitting there waiting to carry whatever they can dream up.
If I've understood Esther Dyson aright, then TBL has a word for her: 'Nobody is suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to charge more for (eg) a video-capable Internet connection. That’s no reason not to make it anything but neutral.'
The comment, though, that has interested me most in all that I've read about this issue, online (mainly) and (sometimes) off, was made in August by James Boyle. Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law and co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. In an important article in the FT, A closed mind about an open world, he discussed behavioural economics and cognitive bias:
Studying intellectual property and the internet has convinced me that we have another cognitive bias. Call it the openness aversion. We are likely to undervalue the importance, viability and productive power of open systems, open networks and non-proprietary production. …
It is not that openness is always right. Rather, it is that we need a balance between open and closed, owned and free, and we are systematically likely to get the balance wrong. Partly this is because we still do not understand the kind of property that exists on networks. Most of our experience is with tangible property; fields that can be overgrazed if outsiders cannot be excluded. For that kind of property, control makes more sense. We still do not intuitively grasp the kind of property that cannot be exhausted by overuse (think of a piece of software) and that can become more valuable to us the more it is used by others (think of a communications standard). There the threats are different, but so are the opportunities for productive sharing. Our intuitions, policies and business models misidentify both. Like astronauts brought up in gravity, our reflexes are poorly suited for free fall. …
Control and ownership seem intuitively the right way to go. How do you feel about today’s debates? Should we preserve “net neutrality” and openness or give network owners greater control? Should we create new rights for broadcasters and database owners? The next project of the behavioural economists should be to study our cognitive frameworks about property, control and networks. Like the pilot in the cloud looking at his instruments, we might learn that we are upside down.
Other articles/material on or around this theme that I recommend:
- An earlier posting by TBL on his blog, Neutrality of the Net.
- Kevin Marks, Internet regeneration: 'My generation draws the Internet as a cloud that connects everyone; the younger generation experiences it as oxygen that supports their digital lives. The old generation sees this as a poisonous gas that has leaked out of their pipes, and they want to seal it up again.' Also, Tiered versus Weird: 'Network engineers draw the Internet as a cloud, because it doesn't matter to endpoints how the packets get there. … By contrast, telco's and networking providers … see the wires and the complexity, because that's what they do. … they fall back on thinking hierarchically, which is another way of coping with complexity. This contributes to the difficulty of getting the open network argument across to governments - the hierarchic frame is a good fit for their default approach to organisation and information flow, so regulatory capture is a likely outcome.'
- 'I did have some trust in the telecoms when they were in a free market, but they have not been playing fair as their numbers have dwindled. In the Net Neutrality debate they have taken a three legged argument (telecom, consumer, and content provider) and removed themselves from the argument. The telecoms want people to believe a lie that it is the content owners and the customers that are on opposite sides. But, in reality it is the telecoms that stand between the people and the content and the telecoms have threatened to extort money from the Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. The telecoms fed the lies to Senator Ted Stevens to make him look like a buffoon talking about the "Internet are just tubes".' Thomas Vander Wal
- 'Vint Cerf is quoted in the International edition of Newsweek (May 15-22) saying: Sadly, it looks like the period in which the Internet functions seamlessly is over.' That's quite a warning, and I'm surprised that - in a world where the borderless and efficient functioning of the Internet is becoming vital to governments, businesses and individuals alike - it has not been picked up and commented more widely.' Bruno Giussani
- In July, David Weinberger posted that 'John Palfrey and Robert Rogoyski have written a paper about Net neutrality as an architectural ideal and as a reality' and linked to a download site for the paper.
- Doc Searls: '"Broadband" is like "long distance": just another name for transient scarcity. We want our Net to be as fast, accessible and unrestricted as a hard drive. (And in time even that analogy will seem too slow.) The only way that will happen is if the Net becomes ubiquitous infrastructure -- something which, in a practical sense, nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve. There is infinitely more business in making that happen, and using the results, than Congress can ever protect for the carriers alone.'
- ORG's Net Neutrality links on their 'List of relevant expressions of digital rights issues in artistic form' page.
- Wikipedia's net neutrality entry.
- Scientific American editorial: 'On balance, those favoring net neutrality make the better case. A system for prioritizing data traffic might well be necessary someday, yet one might hope that it would be based on the needs of the transmissions rather than the deal making and caprices of the cable owners. Moreover, personal blogs and other Web pages are increasingly patchworks of media components from various sources. Tiered service would stultify that trend. If the costs for video are not to be universally shared, perhaps it will ultimately be fairer and more practical for individuals to pay for the valued data they receive.'
- It'sOurNet and (thanks, Glyn — see comment) SavetheInternet.com.
- On Senator Ted Stevens and 'the internet of tubes', there are numerous sites and sources of comedy available: eg, CheZLark, the Daily Show.