So what's the story on the Google/Verizon proposal that would allow carriers to offer high-speed networks to favored customers at a higher price than standard internet access? Would it spell the end of net neutrality?
There are two parts of the proposal. The first would essentially eliminate the principle of net neutrality over wireless networks. So within that piece of the internet, the answer is yes.
But what about the wireline network? There, the VG proposal is a little more subtle. Basically, they suggest that the current internet — which their document calls the "public internet" — should remain governed by strict net neutrality that treats everybody equally. However, carriers would be allowed to construct complementary networks that discriminate freely. The subtext here is that while well-heeled corporations could indeed buy better service, the public internet — i.e., the one we all know and love today — would be unaffected.
So: is this true? David Post is a strong supporter ("indeed, I'm a religious zealot") of the current end-to-end design of the internet, a design that essentially enforces net neutrality at the protocol level by placing all processing at the endpoints of the network and allowing the network itself to do very little aside from dumb transport of bits. Here's his take:
The problem is that there are many things an E2E inter-network (like the one we have) can’t do that people want their inter-network to do and would pay to have it do, and businesses serving those people want to provide those things. Things like guaranteed delivery of packets; the E2E network can’t promise that your packet will arrive at its destination, because that would require the network to keep track of your transmission as it moves along....[etc.]
The problem then boils down to: is there a way to preserve the E2E network — the open, nondiscriminatory inter-network — while simultaneously allowing people to get the services they want? Now in fact, that’s not exactly the question, because we know the answer to that one. There are already thousands, hundreds and hundreds of thousands, of non-E2E networks that do lots and lots of internal processing and provide lots and lots of services the E2E Internet does not provide. Your cell phone provider’s network, for instance. Most corporate wide area networks, for instance. Obviously, if Verizon wants to build a separate network and offer all sorts of glorious services on it, it can do so. The real net neutrality problem is this: if Verizon uses the Internet’s infrastucture to provide those services, will that somehow degrade the performance of the E2E Internet or somehow jeopardize its existence? Put another way: if Verizon can figure out a way to provide additional services to some of its subscribers using the Internet infrastructure in a way that does not compromise the traffic over the E2E inter-network, why should we want to stop them from doing that?
I think this is a good way of putting the question, though I'd expand it a bit. First, there's a technical question: can Verizon (and other carriers) segregate traffic over current backbones without degrading the performance of other traffic? I'm skeptical on fundamental grounds, but as Post says, there's always the chance that "technological innovation can do things that I usually cannot foresee." And it's certainly true that content delivery vendors like Akamai already provide high-speed access for a fee by pushing the boundaries of the current architecture of the internet as far as it will go. So maybe Post is right. But there's also an economic question: if carriers put all their capital development into high-speed dedicated networks, does this mean they'll simply let the current public internet deteriorate naturally as traffic increases but bandwidth doesn't keep up? That seems pretty likely to me.
If you're a pure libertarian, your answer is, "So what?" If there's a demand for high-performance public access, then the market will deliver it. If there's not, then there's no reason it should. But there's a collective action problem here: if the public backbone deteriorates, there's nothing I can do about it. As an individual, obviously I can't afford the kind of dedicated high-speed network that Disney or Fox News can. But the public backbone is a shared resource. Unless lots of my fellow users are willing to pay for high-speed service, I can't get it. And if access to most of the big sites is fast because they're paying for special networks, what are the odds that people will care all that much about all the small sites? Probably kind of slim.
Again: who cares? If most people don't care much about high-speed access to small sites as long as they have fast access to the highest-traffic sites, then that's the way the cookie crumbles. There's no law that says the market has to provide everything Kevin Drum wants.
Still, there are real benefits to providing routine, high-speed internet infrastructure to everyone. It means that small, innovative net-based companies can compete more easily with existing giants. It means schoolchildren can get fast access to a wide variety of content, not just stuff from Microsoft and Google. It means we have a more level playing field between content providers of all kinds. Sometimes universal access is a powerful economic multiplier — think postal service and electricity and interstate highways — and universal access to a robust internet is to the 21st century what those things were to the past. If, instead of an interstate highway system, we'd spent most of our money building special toll roads for Wal-Mart and UPS, would that have been a net benefit for the country? I'd be very careful before deciding that it would have been.
For now, then, count me on the side of a purer version of net neutrality, in which the backbone infrastructure stays robust because everyone — including the big boys — has an incentive to keep it that way. I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise, but Verizon and Google are going to have to do the persuading. And it better be pretty convincing.