What does Net Neutrality mean?

George led off the Hour last night with a segment on net neutrality. This is a buzz-phrase of late, but I wonder if its as important as people are making it out to be. If you want to do some independent reading, ZDNet has a pro and con blog posted, and Wikipedia has a good article posted about some of the basic concepts involved. But there’s some basic architecture and history issues that I think people are forgetting in all this.

The first thing to do in any discussion of net neutrality, to my mind anyway, is to define your terms. When we use the slang ‘net, or internet, do we actually know what we are talking about, in a specific sense? The “internet” is really a combination of three kinds of things … hardware like cables and tcpip cards and phone lines that allows data to be transmitted across it, a set of protocols that determine how that information is processed and understood, and a layer of software that implements that protocols on the hardware.

The current issue of net neutrality focuses mostly on the hardware side of the triangle … the backbones and cables and links through which the modern broadband internet experience is delivered. This hardware, in today’s world, IS largely owned by cable companies and telecoms, especially in the broadband era.

Its worth pointing out that in some ways, the ‘tiers’ that people talk about already exist. Because of specific hardware configurations, your ISP can deliver its own content to you FAR more efficiently than it can deliver content from the net. Leaving out the issue of content availability, the simple equation of fewer machines involved makes the data transaction that much faster. Companies like AOL were created entirely on this model, of providing a tiered Internet experience to dial-up users in an era when most ISP’s simply connected folks to the basic net. The success of their efforts can be debated … while AOL still exists in some forms, rivals from that era like CompuServe don’t seem to have been as lucky. But regardless of the existence or size of an AOL entity, its name has become synonymous for a dumbed-down Internet experience, and for poor customer service.

One of the reasons that services like AOL didn’t survive as tiered services was that people preferred the unfiltered experience. People still do … its what the internet is built on. And the thing is, its the protocols that matter. There will almost certainly be premium subscription services to certain kinds of content, as there already is on the internet, services that provide better access to that content. But there will also always be the other end of the internet because the protocols demand it. In an extreme world, where ‘big telecom’ refused access to people providing the ‘old internet’ or severely hampered their efforts, they would simply find another form of hardware to use to send the signals.

Just like AOL couldn’t corner the dial-up internet market, when they tried SO hard to make people want a tiered browsing experience, people trying to create tiered internet systems today will both succeed and fail. They will succeed in creating the tiered systems, and people will find use in them … but they will also fail to destroy the neutrality of the net itself because that has little to with the hardware its being run on. That neutrality is a result of protocols that treat data bits as data bits, and as a result are incredibly efficient at transporting huge volumes of data. As George’s guest said last night, David has a lot of ways of taking down Goliath in internet affairs, and I tend to think efforts to thwart the neutrality today will fail for the same reasons they have in the past, and succeed in the same ways too.

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