Tired of hearing about “net neutrality”? Better go away for a while then, because the overheated debate, which has spilled into television attack ads, isn’t ending any time soon. For one thing, net neutrality has become a potentially lethal obstruction in efforts by Congress to pass a major overhaul of federal communications law—it may even sink the effort for this year.
With stakes that high, you’d think that at least there would be a simple definition of what net neutrality even means. But no. Lobbyists, pundits and industry leaders have revved up their rhetorical engines, flinging metaphors and topping each other’s hyperbole to the point where bloggers sound measured by comparison. Net neutrality is “simply” about “fast” and “slow” lanes on the information interstate, says one set of lobbyists; without it, according to another group, Congress will be “stripping the Internet of the First Amendment” and turning the “free market” for information into a “planned economy,” like the failed Soviet system. Steve Forbes calls net neutrality “an inexcusable barrier to the tradition of innovation at the heart of the Internet,” while Craigslist founder Craig Newmark writes, “It’s just fairness. Americans want to play fair, work hard and get ahead. That’s what net neutrality is about.”
Time out guys! As best I can determine, net neutrality is something DSL providers already do, which is to treat all data traffic equally, regardless of source or destination and without peeking at the content. Here’s a packet—we don’t know or care who it’s from or what it contains. Find its optimal routing given current traffic patterns and send it on its way. In other words, eBay can’t pay AT&T or Verizon to have its pages delivered faster than pages from Google or Yahoo!.
As traditional phone companies prepare to compete with cable and satellite providers in the TV business, however, supporters of net neutrality fear that the temptation to tinker with this architecture will prove irresistible. So they want to make that architecture a matter of federal law. Their opponents (phone and cable companies and their hardware suppliers) argue that doing so will destroy their incentive to continue investing in communications infrastructure. There are half a dozen different neutrality bills floating around in the House and Senate, though none have passed to date.
At its core, the net neutrality controversy is a new round in two very old fights, one about deregulation of the former telephone monopoly and the other about the appropriate role for government in legislating new technologies.