Net Neutrality: What's the Price?

Net neutrality is making headlines again. According to reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Google and Verizon have been canoodling in an attempt to reach a pact that will give Verizon more moola in exchange for preferential treatment to Google's data packets.

Both sides deny this, of course.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringely makes a case for Net neutrality in light of Google's recent troubles with China. | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Illustration: Jeffrey Pelo
Nuh-uh, says Verizon in its official policy blog.

Liar liar pants on fire, says Google on.

Meanwhile, the FCC has just ended quiet negotiations in its secret clubhouse with various stakeholders in an attempt to reach a Net neutrality compromise. Whether the FCC took its toys and went home in reaction to the talks Google and Verizon both deny having is still a mystery.

What's at stake here? Let's start by following the money.

According to a recent report by the Sunlight Foundation, forces opposing Net neutrality (big broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, as well as telecom-centric trade groups and unions like the NCTA and the CWA) outspent pro-Net neutrality forces (Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and so on) by a margin of four to one. The NoNetNeuts spend nearly $20 million on lobbyists in the first quarter of 2010, and the ProNetNeuts roughly $5 million.

In DC, of course, money talks and principles walk. It's a simple formula: The folks that spend the most money trying to buy laws they prefer are almost always the ones most likely to recoup that investment many times over from whatever that legislation ultimately decrees.

Yes, the big ISPs and their cronies have legitimate concerns. All bits are not really created equal. The quality-of-service requirements for Web pages and email are not the same as for voice and video. ISPs are unlikely to invest in the technology required to prioritize certain types of bits unless they can recoup their investment -- again and again and again. Without that, the Internet will never truly become the end-all, be-all delivery system for phone, television, data, and so on. Broadband speeds in the United States will continue to suck, relative to other developed nations.

But at the same time, ISPs are also becoming content providers. The No. 1 cable broadband company, Comcast, is in the process of merging with NBC Universal, the No. 4 TV network and sixth-largest movie studio. The parent company of Time Warner Cable (the fourth-largest ISP) already owns CNN, HBO, Warner Bros Studio, Turner Broadcasting, and a sizable publishing empire.

Will broadband providers give their own content more favorable treatment if Net neutrality fails? Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

Imagine the next YouTube trying to launch itself in an environment where the people who own the pipes also own most of the stuff that flows through them. Unless that startup has deep pockets, it's dead in the water. So long, Chad. Later, Steve. Time to get a real job, Jawed.

Sadly, there's no easy solution here. Reader and regular correspondent D. S. recently shared with me a snippet from a document put together by the City of Seattle a few years ago in a Request for Interest for a citywide fiber network. It captures pretty well how he and I both feel about the matter:

Non Discriminatory Bit Transport

It is vital to the future of the Internet that network owners not discriminate in terms of bit transport or unnecessarily mediate between users and content or application providers. This should not be construed as a prohibition on quality of service guarantees but the network partner must provide similar treatment to all providers of like services. We believe that preferential treatment by network owners or operators of data streams will distort the evolutionary path of the Internet, stifle creativity and innovation and ultimately abridge the ability of the Internet to be a medium for the free dissemination of diverse thought and opinion.

Nice idea, no? The problem here, of course: Where does "differentiating between different classes of service" end and "discriminating against bits" begin? If I had the answer to that one, maybe they'd make me head of the FCC.

Or possibly Pope. I'm told I look good in funny hats.

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