CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh blogged Thursday on "Ten things that finally killed Net neutrality."
Most of his reasons related to a lack of political support from both Republican and Democratic politicians and bureaucrats. But those all sound like temporary delays to me.
I'm pretty sure Net neutrality will pop back up again because there's an inherent conflict between the business interests of network operators and the desires of some content providers and political activists.
McCullagh's key paragraph, I think, was buried under point No. 8:
The problem with the Net neutrality debate has been two-fold. First, the term is vague and means different things to different people. Does it mean broadband providers shouldn't block content (a perfectly reasonable principle, that) or does it mean the FCC gets to prevent AT&T from entering into deals to make its partners' TV shows stream without hiccups? Second, it's possible to support the goals of Net neutrality while being deeply skeptical of the FCC getting things right when it comes to Internet regulation.
Never mind the second half of that--How can one support the goals of a movement that can't be clearly defined? That lack of clarity has pretty much prevented any useful debate of the issues here.
What are the issues? Let me see if I can add some clarity.
- Should network operators be regulated at all?
- This is the big question. If the answer is "no"--and I think it is--there's no need to continue. I don't think government regulation can be justified when there's robust competition in the market, and it seems to me that there's plenty of competition in broadband Internet access.
- Assuming network operators are to be regulated, should they be allowed to offer multiple tiers of service for content providers?
- Currently, network operators rarely offer any kind of service for content providers. They provide tiered service for their subscribers, but all of the content out on the Internet is normally treated the same. The net neutrality controversy really flared up, as McCullagh says, "after AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre was quoted as talking about (no longer) giving Google and other Internet companies a 'free ride' on his network, whatever that means."
- Network operators aren't entitled to discriminate against certain content providers or certain kinds of network traffic. Their customers--network users--choose the content they want to download, and the network operators have no legal right under their service agreements to interfere with these choices.
- Should network operators be allowed to enhance access to some content providers in return for fees paid by those providers or by their own subscribers?
- Such payments would be completely consistent with the normal operation of a free market. Both network operators and content providers would benefit--or they wouldn't do these deals. Consumers would benefit because they'd be getting services they couldn't otherwise have. The extra fees would go to improving the network; the odds are that even the "free" content providers would benefit.
- Should network operators be allowed to restrict access to some content providers if the content providers don't pay extra?
- This sounds like extortion, but if that's what a network's subscribers wanted, I would have no moral objection to such restrictions. However, I'm sure that would be commercial suicide. Consumers just wouldn't go along with it, and they shouldn't. It's a terrible idea, but not something we need to regulate. The market can take care of itself on this one.
Interfering with enhanced-service deals is the hidden agenda of some Net neutrality advocates. They raise a big stink about Whitacre's remark, but they're really trying to prevent the network operators from establishing this new revenue source.
Sometimes the arguments echo the old Marxist dream of a "classless society." How can we have a classless society, they ask, if we don't have a classless Internet? But that's silly. The kinds of multimedia services that might require special deals between network operators and content providers--an HDTV version of YouTube, let's say--are hardly matters of "class." And it's pretty clear that society works better when there are incentives and opportunities to live better, even when the advantages are fairly trivial.
There's a lot more to the Net neutrality debate than I have time to go into here, but the debate can't proceed until all these entangled issues are separated.