• United States

‘Net neutrality: Is it fair to give preferential treatment to those who pay for it?

Feb 20, 20063 mins

* You're bumped off a flight because a hotel paid for another passenger's guaranteed arrival ...

This week, we’d like to outline our position on the ‘Net neutrality issue we raised last time. But first, please indulge us as we relate a hypothetical story.

Imagine for a moment that you are at the check-in line for a flight from New York to Las Vegas. Finally, you get to go on that summer vacation. As is always the case, the airline has overbooked (oversubscribed) your flight. The agent tells you that he’s sorry, but as happens on occasion the flight is oversold and you can’t board. He then informs you that only passengers who are staying at the XYZ hotel in Las Vegas may fly to Las Vegas today because the XYZ hotel has paid his airline an extra fee to make sure XYZ customers get to Las Vegas. Sound fair?

You did pay for your ticket but as the agent will rightly tell you, you have only paid for transportation between New York and Las Vegas. The airline makes no guarantees that you will always get the seat you want or leave when you expected to go. The airline is, in a sense, “best effort” transportation. Kind of like the Internet.

Now the CEO of the airline might argue that his industry is subject to intense competition and he has an obligation to his shareholders to maximize shareholder value. He suggests that collecting a $10 fee from Las Vegas hotels to give their customers preferential transportation is very fair to his shareholders. And, the CEO suggests that if it weren’t for airlines, Las Vegas would go out of business.

You point out to the CEO that you go to Las Vegas for the whole Las Vegas experience – not just the XYZ hotel. And in fact, if it weren’t for the whole Las Vegas experience you probably wouldn’t be taking any airline’s flight to Las Vegas. And, you counter, that if it weren’t for destinations like Las Vegas and Hawaii then the airlines might not exist. Kind of like the Internet.

We believe that everyone in the world who wants to go to Las Vegas should be allowed to go to Las Vegas – and that admission to Las Vegas shouldn’t be predicated on a Las Vegas business having the ability to pay for a passenger’s transportation.

We support ‘Net neutrality and the idea that all users should have equal access to Internet content. We don’t suggest that Internet access should be free and in fact, it is not – the last time we checked most people are paying for their access. And content providers also pay for their connection to the Internet backbone. But as we don’t think our hypothetical traveler should get bumped because XYZ hotel didn’t pay to get him to Las Vegas, similarly we don’t think service providers should offer preferential treatment to select content and applications.

How to enforce ‘Net neutrality? Some have suggested that ‘Net neutrality should be regulated. But there are some technical issues with enforcing regulation. Furthermore, we’re not sure that charging for preferred traffic treatment in the Internet backbone is going to improve connection performance. We’ll discuss these issues next time.