A reasonable discussion surrounding net neutrality

In the world of tech policy there are few issues more conflict-laden and wrapped up in misunderstandings than net neutrality. Indeed, since 2003 when Columbia Professor Tim Wu coined the term, the battle lines in Washington have been drawn. One side argues that unless the government mandates that all Internet traffic be treated exactly the same the Internet as we know it will end, while the other side claims that any regulation will end investment and network evolution.

The latest round in this fight reignited when reports circulated that Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was set to release a draft set of proposed rules to codify net neutrality. Immediately, the old charges and counter-charges started flying, with numerous advocates claiming that the FCC was set to give away the Internet to corporations and leave consumers to fend for themselves. The main reason for these claims? Wheeler has proposed that efforts to secure the openness of the Internet should be balanced with the need to enable nascent, next-generation communication applications and new business models that can drive growth and innovation in our nation’s broadband infrastructure.

The net neutrality advocates claim that these new rules will enable all manner of injustices. Perhaps the most outlandish claim is that ISPs will sell bundled tiers of service, that if you want to access the sports tier (e.g., access to MBL.com, NBA.com, and ESPN.com) you’ll have to pay extra. Another is that Internet service providers (ISPs) will scuttle all traffic that doesn’t pay a toll to a “slow lane.” Still others voiced concerns that allowing any form of prioritization within networks will reduce innovation, claiming the next Google or Netflix won’t be able to afford “Internet tolls.” These advocates argue that instead we need to keep the core of the network perfectly neutral, even if, in the end, it means slower delivery of the most popular content, hampers further development of latency sensitive applications like video conferencing, or slows innovation in new broadband technologies and applications.

Unfortunately, these arguments rest on some misunderstandings about how packet differentiation would work in practice and what the proposed rules seem intended to prevent. For starters, the idea that the entire Internet would be bundled into packages of websites with different levels of service is totally unfounded; such practices would almost certainly not be allowed under the proposed rules to be unveiled May 15, and, furthermore, major ISPs have never engaged in such practices and likely never will.

Accusations of impending “throttling” are also ill-founded.  Most of the Internet currently works on a “best-efforts” basis where packets arrive at the user’s device based on when they get in the “cue.”  The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of web content will continue to enjoy the current “best-efforts” Internet if the new rules are adopted. If, however, some companies with applications like video teleconferencing services wanted to alert the network that they were willing to pay for assurances like limited delay or packet-loss, that should be allowed. Giving the network core the flexibility to recognize special requirements for different traffic, for example a very low delay in traversing the network, will undoubtedly be a net gain for all, and does not threaten the open and “permissionless” Internet.

Chairman Wheeler has repeatedly stated that the proposed net neutrality rules will ensure that any practices that harm competition or consumers would be prohibited. This would include a case-by-case analysis of traffic management practices, and requirements that “commercially reasonable” practices are available to all on similar terms. The general aim of the chairman’s proposal is the best way to solve this particularly thorny policy problem: allow for innovation within the network to unlock new applications while ensuring consumers and competitors are protected from any unfair business practices.

In short, the Internet is a content network today, but we need it become a truly general-purpose network in the future. We should want an Internet that is as efficient when transferring files as it is when providing extra-low-delay packet transport to video callers, television channel surfers, telemedicine participants, gamers, and security service providers. As a result, the best way to draft a non-discrimination rule is to focus on discriminatory market practices, as Chairman Wheeler has in fact done, not on engineering practices that are either discriminatory or not depending on one’s viewpoint on nuanced aspects of network design and operation.

The Commission’s proposed rules will likely allow for a subtle, tailored approach that can protect consumers better than a general, proscriptive rule. At the very least, we should all calm down until we get the actual proposal. There will be plenty of time to work out the details in the coming months.

Brake is telecom policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.