• United States


May 02, 20065 mins

* 'Net neutrality debate is not about the end of the Internet as we know it

Back in the late 1990s, a common acronym in discussions about the Y2K problem was “TEOTWAWKI”: The End of the World As We Know It. In my most recent column, I surely enraged proponents of social action to defend “‘Net neutrality” by suggesting that the situation we face today is not TEOTIAWKI (The End of the Internet As We Know It).

There are several issues mixed up in the excited rhetoric about ISPs who might want to provide faster access to certain content providers and to certain types of Internet traffic. I’d like to analyze the issues so that we can think about the problems with more reason and less emotion than some of the writing I’ve seen on the ‘Net recently.

The issues seem to be that:

* Some people think of “the” Internet as a public service or a commons, much like air. In their mental model, no one owns the Internet and access to “it” should be free and uncontrolled. Any interference with equal access to any aspect of the Internet is morally reprehensible and must be opposed in all possible ways.

* Another block of people perceive “the” Internet as an entity much like “the” phone system. That is, their mental model is of a unified construct under centralized control, or at least, under the control of monopolistic forces. According to this model, we need strong regulation analogous to that which regulated the development of the telephone system, complete with strong central-government agencies that impose restrictions on anticompetitive behavior that could stifle the development of small competitors to The Big Guys.

* Without explicit new regulations, ISPs will naturally apply restrictions on the content made available to users because wealthy content-providers will pay fees to enhance access speeds to their material and possibly even to block access to competitors’ materials. Under these rules, nonprofit, counterculture, and individual content-providers won’t stand a chance of having their materials read because users will naturally flock to the quicker sources and abandon the slower ones.

My mental model of the Internet is a bit different. I think of the Internet as the totality of computer systems that communicate using TCP/IP. Similarly, the World Wide Web is the totality of computer systems that communicate through the Internet and make content available through HTTP and various derivatives of HTML.

Nothing in this model suggests that there is anything to own about the Internet, or indeed that “the” Internet exists apart from interconnections, any more than there is an “Englishspace” consisting of all people who communicate using English. All components of the Internet are owned by individuals, collectives, corporations, or governments; there is nothing free about them. Yes, some owners of Internet components provide free access to the Internet, but that free access implies nothing about ownership.

Such a model of the Internet has implications for the problems articulated above. For example, the whole notion that anyone has a fundamental, inherent, inalienable _right_ to Internet access evaporates – except insofar as a government declares that such access must be available to all, much as public roads are available to all because people decided that they would be so.

Similarly, if ISPs are engaged in civil contracts to provide defined services to users, then the terms of the contracts freely entered into are entirely up to the parties involved. An ISP that declared that it would bar access to all Web sites in which the word “xylophone” appeared might lose users with an interest in music and those opposed in principle to violations of ‘Net neutrality, but it would in no sense be breaking a law or violating a moral principle. It would be a stupid idea, but that’s another question. By analogy, an ISP in the United States that decided to bar access to Web sites based on political or religious grounds might appeal to some people and not to others – but again, such filtering would violate no fundamental principles of justice. Anyone not liking the policies would presumably choose a different ISP.

If ISPs do eventually violate ‘Net neutrality to make money from contracts with content producers or to privilege certain types of traffic (video is most often mentioned), I cannot believe that users will simply shrug and give up access to sites they wanted to visit simply because an alternative is faster. If I want to read a story from Science magazine, I am not going to visit Scientific American simply because it happens to be faster. What makes the TEOTIAWKI folks believe that users are so fickle in their choices of content that speed alone will be the determinant of their browsing habits?

In my next two columns, I will address another issue raised by the notion of violating ‘Net neutrality: the legal consequences of ISP interference with the unfettered flow of information to their users.