Network neutrality is a really bad name from a marketing perspective if we want to get folks interested in saving the internet. There is no mention of either the internet itself or what is at stake! Let’s start calling it the “internet freedom” debate. Folks care of about liberty. Freedom is a primary reason why the internet exists in the first place, which I expand on in this post: “The Internet Wants to be Free”. Any internet which does not allow for freedom of use (within the bounds of accepted law) is no longer an internet, rather it becomes simply a network owned by someone else, be it government, telcos or private enterprise.
Last night’s House vote against an amendment that would make Net Neutrality enforceable is the result of swarming lobbyists and a multi-million-dollar media campaign by telephone companies that want Congress to hand them control of the Internet.
For those of your disheartened by this, I don’t think the mess of politics in Washington is going to matter much to internet freedom. Any more than the media industry’s adoption of DRM is going to protect them from being forced by consumers to adopt a more flexible, less expensive method of music and video distribution. End users simply are demanding more control over their experience, the age of unidirectional broadcast is ending. Perhaps political votes like this will affect the path of how we get from point A (producer control) to point B (enduser control), but point B is looking pretty inevitable. Big telcos and media companies need to adapt to the new demand for consumer control or be replaced by new providers. The evolutionary pressure is simply too strong, favoring control of internet communications at the endpoints (see Isen’s The Rise of the Stupid Network). In the case of media, the market forces are also pushing for more control in the hands of consumers, which is why we see a preponderance of MP3 players and PVRs, and why the radio folks get it but distributors of physical and DRM’ed media products don’t. It really is all about control versus freedom. Achieiving a reasonable balance here is critical to maximizing the benefits to both consumers and producers, and unfortunately the balance has been swinging heavily towards control by the producers, which Lessig eloquently argues is bad for culture and, perhaps counter-intuitively, bad for incenting future creativity.
How the internet freedom (net neutrality) debacle goes down will probably depend on whether the public votes politically or economically. One might argue that the political system is somewhat broken for this purpose due to the overwhelming influence of lobby groups (at least in the USA). In all likelihood, people will vote in far great numbers with their wallets and their online behavior: ISPs or telcos who restrict our freedom to use the internet for legal applications will simply be “voted off the island.” New networks will arise that work around the pieces of the internet who break the social contract from which the internet emerged in the first place. The internet will remain part of the free world whether legislated or not. We would all do better to turn our focus to ensuring that our political systems continue to embrace liberty as a guiding principle for our social and economic policies.
Update: Ed Felten seems to agree that regulation should not be necessary unless there is some kind of market collusion:
It seems to me, though, that if we accept this last argument then we have decided that the residential ISP business is naturally not very competitive. (Otherwise competition will erode those monopoly rents.) And if the market is not going to be competitive, then our policy discussion will have to go beyond the simple “let the market decide” arguments that we hear from some quarters. Naturally noncompetitive communications markets have long posed difficult policy questions, and this one looks like no exception. We can only hope that we have learned from the regulatory mistakes of the past.
To which I add my argument that the self-organizing nature of the internet should allow it to adapt and find workarounds to networks which discriminate, something which was impossible with the highly centralized proprietary phone networks.