Thursday, October 21, 2010

Net neutrality

Neutrality of the internet has been a debate raging for a very long time. I will provide a brief summary of what I think the pros and cons are of net neutrality. The internet has grown to a size where I believe regulations might become necessary to keep it working well in addition to maintain its openness. One of the things that people in to realize is that the internet costs money to run. It requires agreements between organizations for traffic to flow across networks. When companies and individual consumers sign-up, they expect a certain quality of service. Their contracts may even make certain guarantees pertaining to that very thing. As such, ISPs may be forced to throttle certain popular internet applications (i.e. P2P) in order to maintain a certain QoS for their other customers. Net Neutrality, in one sense, would prevent that kind of QoS monitoring. Although P2P can be used for completely legal things (ex. getting distros of Linux or other large files, Blizzard uses it to distribute Starcraft 2), I would argue that most users use it to download copyrighted media illegally. Sad, but true. A P2P network is also designed to take advantage of all available network bandwidth. It can easily affect other services on a network if left unchecked. In that instance, I may agree that a non-neutral approach to the internet would be beneficial for all users.

Let’s take it the other direction. I think it is completely wrong for ISPs to censor content and services that  are completely legal. One of the arguments opponents of net neutrality present is that there is a limited amount of bandwidth. That may be true, but maybe instead of investing money in finding more ways to make money, invest money in ways that will more efficiently use the network (i.e. network layer multicast would be great for video games). Another argument I find a little ridiculous is that of certain services “freeloading.” The internet is very much a “request for services” architecture. Skype doesn’t approach you, you as the user approach Skype and ask them to use their service. As the user, I’m paying my ISP so that I can access all these services. The ISP shouldn’t care beyond receiving a check from me every month. Obviously if I stopped paying then I would no longer be able to access Skype and there would be no way they could approach me. Another argument against neutrality is that of the lack of incentives for ISPs to invest. What are we paying the CEOs for then? Are they so out of touch that they can’t come up with other ways to make money in a neutral environment? There are plenty of services that ISPs could offer to monetize in addition to offering access to the internet.

There are definitely pros and cons to complete net neutrality. I don’t think it is possible to actually reach, because money, profit margins and power drive this planet. I do think we can’t leave the fate of the internet to the invisible hand because all the alternatives probably aren’t much better. Like many other things in this country that affect the majority of people’s livelihoods, it will probably have to be kept in check by the government. Whether that is good or not has yet to be seen.

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