Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Network Neutrality Debate: It's All Relative

From Techdirt:

It seems like the whole "network neutrality" debate is back for another round... and just like last time we're seeing a lot of arguments that seem to be talking past one another, while filling in the cracks with dishonest points, rather than trying to figure out the core of why there's disagreement and seeing if there's some sort of middle ground. While I've been accused of supporting both the telcos and the big internet companies' side of this debate, the truth is I support neither, and believe that there really are more than two sides. In fact, I think it's really just a case where there's not nearly enough competition in the marketplace. If there were, than no broadband provider would even dare to suggest a non-neutral network, or it would lose a lot of business pretty quickly. At the same time, I'm skeptical that any legislative approach to enforcing "neutrality" will work -- and in the long run will most likely create a series of loopholes or a setup that will allow the dominant providers a way to game the system to their advantage.

Larry Lessig recently wrote an op ed piece for the Financial Times talking about the importance in broadband competition and how it's been weakened in the US. Scott Cleland, who has been one of the loudest "think tankers" arguing against network neutrality, responded by challenging a bunch of facts in Lessig's piece. Lessig then responded himself, pointing out that the Cleland's attempt at refuting Lessig's points did no such thing. You can read the whole debate yourself to see where you come out on it, but there are a few points that deserve to be highlighted. First, Cleland pulls out stats about broadband competition saying that price has been decreasing, even though that's not really true. It's mostly stayed steady, once you take out special promotional pricing and the cost of various "bundles" you're forced to sign up for to get the cheaper pricing. Lessig also points out that on a dollars per bandwidth measurement, prices have gone up. In other words, it all depends on how you set your scale.

The same is true of Cleland's argument about how much more broadband we have in the US than we had a few years ago. He trots out the discredited FCC numbers, while Lessig again points out that his scale is wrong. He's doing a then and now comparison within the US, rather than comparing US broadband change to other nations around the world, where we've fallen increasingly behind. As I've said in the past, it may not be the worst thing to fall behind somewhat, if others are making big bets that will later turn out to be mistakes -- but it is still interesting to see a second situation where the debate hinges on both sides using a different scale. Finally, pulls out the completely bogus argument that we thought had died that breaking net neutrality is nothing new because it's exactly what companies like Akamai have always done. The trick here is more subtle, but no less wrong. Akamai doesn't break net neutrality because it provides a premium access path for everyone -- not just customers of a specific ISP. It continues the end-to-end approach of the internet by allowing a company to create better speeds for anyone who wants their content. The telcos aren't trying to do that. They're trying to create special pipes that will force content and service providers just to reach their customers. It's very much a case of what Lessig later points to in the form of a post from Brian Wills saying that the net neutrality debate is similar to if electricity companies tried to charge a premium for what you used the electricity for -- rather than just the amount of electricity. Now, you can argue that's perfectly reasonable, but it's not the way the debate has mostly been portrayed up until now. Supporters of the telcos have argued that net neutrality would ban them from charging more for general bandwidth, which isn't the case at all.

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