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Net Neutrality: Don’t Get Congress Involved, Please!

I realize that this is conventional wisdom among geeks, but I remain very skeptical. To summarize:

1)bandwidth is already plentiful; we’re talking about hypothetical harms here. (For the record, I actually downgraded my broadband a few months ago, with absolutely no complaints).

2)companies already pay for ISP’s and webhosting; tiered service is not anything new. Anyway, webhosting costs have been decreasing in price. I find it highly unlikely that this downward trend won’t continue across the board.

3)The thing I find strange is that if anything, tiered pricing, by passing on costs to distributors, could ultimately benefit consumers by lowering subscription costs. Tiered pricing could increase flexibility. I really am not sure. But that should be for private industry to decide. Even if legislators were relatively well-informed and up-to-date, the pace of technology change tends to outstrip that of legislative oversight; this legislation will probably be obsolete on the day it is passed.

4)So what if SBC decides to implement a tiered system of bandwidth! Consumers just stop renewing their contracts if they hate it enough. That’s much better than making courts and legislators do a lot of hairsplitting about what legislative intent was/should be.

5)I worry less about tiered service than I do about ISPs blocking p2p traffic. Then again, I see no need to enact legislation merely to keep certain ports open.

6)as an independent content producer (and soon a distributor), I want the Net environment to be as unregulated as possible (even from laws that purport to ensure acess). If some ISPs are going to charge for tiered QOS, either they better offer substantial benefits to customers or people will abandon them in droves.

7)what concerns me more is restrictive Terms of Service and EULAs. If ISPs offer twice the bandwidth for half the cost, that is great. But if the saving comes with all sorts of extra provisions on TOS, then the battle has been lost.

8)There is a certain arrogance to the notion that consumers can’t be trusted to act in their self-interest but require government’s “help” to be protected.

9)I think the harm being addressed here is that consumers and businesses need more alternatives for obtaining net access. They shouldn’t be in a market where they only have one ISP to choose from. To use myself as an example, the only way I can obtain DSL access in my apartment complex is by getting SBC phone service first. SBC could double the prices of a landline, and I’d have no choice but to swallow it. Then again, I could easily switch to a wireless phone carrier that includes wireless Net service. Or if worse comes to worse, I could obtain satellite. But government regulation would introduce an element of uncertainty and legal wrangling that could deter the offering of new services. For the record, I had a legal dispute with SBC, so I ended up going with a local company for DSL (although I still had to pay for a landline). It’s still possible even in the day of semi-monopolies to withhold support from the incumbent ISP.

Update: After reading some Slashdot responses, I have more ideas about the Net Neutrality thing (and by the way, I realize how absolutely annoying it is to enumerate arguments like this!). (I basically posted this article and received about 20 reponses).

Sending hosting overseas: The impact of tiered pricing may be for amazon.com, etc to send their webhosting overseas. Of course, SBC etc can still use discriminatory pricing, but at least amazon.com can find other ISP which claim to send traffic through SBC’s pipes for less.

maybe the question should be rephrased: how can we create a business environment where companies won’t have an incentive to relocate webhosting overseas?

Because borders define laws, the net neutrality issue may be an area where national borders are going to start to be important again. (and the example of China’s firewall may provide good evidence of how people circumvent barriers imposed by their ISP).

Equity of Access There is real harm in people not having more ISP choices. How much inequalities of net access are we as a geographically diverse society willing to tolerate? It’s hard for customers to boycott a sole provider of ISP in town. But Net Neutrality is purely about Business-to-business transactions. In an ideal scenario, consumers wouldn’t be affected at all by discriminatory pricing; whether that actually happens is another story.

See also my collection of Slashdot comments on the issue.

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