Network Neutrality Update

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 2:05 AM EST

NETWORK NEUTRALITY UPDATE....Slowly but surely, support for network neutrality on the internet is eroding:

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

....Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.

....Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service.

It's not too surprising that big content companies are quietly changing their tune on this: big companies are usually willing to pay for preferential treatment that helps them keep little guys little, and preferential access to the internet is no different from any other competitive advantage. But if even Lessig is starting to give in on this, the jig might truly be up.

If I had to take a (tentative) stand on this, I'd say that preferential treatment might be justified for things like television and video-on-demand services, which require infrastructure buildout and higher service levels just in order to be competitive. (TV subscribers simply won't put up with standard internet quality of service.) But for ordinary content providers merely looking for an edge over possible upstarts? I think that's as corrosive as Standard Oil locking competitors out of the railroads in the 19th century or Ma Bell prohibiting third party equipment on their lines in the 20th century. We shouldn't put up with it.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure how to draw the right distinctions here. Nor, in an environment where network traffic is growing at triple-digit rates but the subscriber base is barely growing at double digit rates, am I sure what incentive the backbone providers have to build additional capacity unless they have some way of charging someone for the additional bandwidth. It's a genuine problem, and I'm not sure what the solution is.

UPDATE: Lessig says the Journal is wrong: his views are the same as they've always been. Long story short, he's OK with network providers offering higher service levels to companies willing to pay for it, but only if they offer the same deal to everyone.

Google responds to the Journal here. They say the only thing they've done is offer to colocate Google-specific caching servers within broadband providers' own facilities. Needless to say, your mileage may vary on whether you think this is a violation of net neutrality.