Saturday, April 7, 2007
Internet Equality: Saving the Net from a Hostile Takeover
Net neutrality has become a buzzword among tech savvy Internet commentators to describe the effort to ensure that network and content providers treat all traffic on the Net equally. In other words, the companies that provide consumers with Internet access cannot give preferential treatment to traffic going to their clients' websites, or cut off certain types of traffic, like file sharing, in an effort to free up bandwidth.
Groups in favor of net neutrality include such diverse interests as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition. Their argument in favor of net neutrality hinges on the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, whether it goes to an individual's blog, or a wealthy company's website. Groups on the Religious Right have joined with their traditional enemies on the Left because each group fears that its own viewpoint will be discriminated against if net neutrality is lost. These groups have the benefit of arguing for the status quo, which has produced the Internet as we know it today.
Groups opposed to net neutrality include business interests like AT&T, and political groups like the American Conservative Union. Business groups and their political allies have argued that in order to scale the Internet for high quality video applications like Internet television and video conferencing, bandwidth must be guaranteed to their customers. Other media, like cable television, can do this because cable companies own the entire infrastructure and can regulate traffic on their data pipes. With so much Internet bandwidth going to specific types of Net traffic, like file sharing, companies looking to enter the Internet video market argue that their customers will not be able to access the types of services they demand unless bandwidth can be guaranteed through tiered access. They further argue that in order to make the necessary infrastructure improvements, investors must see a financial incentive on the back end.
One major problem with the argument against net neutrality is that it opens up so many possibilities for abuse. Companies could allow traffic to their business parters preferential access to bandwidth, and stymie the efforts of users to access competing websites. Demolishing net neutrality paves the way for wealthy companies to maintain a lock on Internet traffic, and prevents upstarts from gaining the traction necessary to displace the built-in advantage of name recognition. Furthermore, the infrastructure improvements necessary to improve network load capacity are in the public interest, and should be mandated by the government as a societal endeavor. Giving telecom companies the ability to regulate Internet traffic is a recipe for disaster. The Internet has served us well in the past, and will continue to do so as long as the government remains true to the ideal of equality that has been one of the cornerstones of the Net since its inception.