Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Utopic Neutrality

I really don't think there's a whole lot of long-term support for Net Neutrality, but it sure does make for some interesting dialog. As the Internet forms and transforms, so many people have so many views on what should be and what will be. These often conflicting and usually opposing views seem to miss the reality of what the Internet and Neutrality is all about. Putting the two together appears to form an oxymoron. I propose, as an alternative:
The premise of neutrality is objectivity, or freedom from bias.

The premise of Net Neutrality is the absence of restrictions by those providing access on those for whom the access is provided.

If this sounds like the western expansion in the United States (and other countries before it), or if someone has burdened you with the metaphor of Internet expansion as space exploration, that's because we, as humans, have the need to relate new things to old paradigms. If we are looking for something to really relate this to, it's pretty simple . . . the Internet is like Utopia!

Utopia is that la-la-land dreamworld where everything is perfectly designed, where beta-testing is a thing of the past (sorry Microsoft), and where nothing -- seriously, nothing -- breaks. It's where you have enough and I have enough, and we both know it and are happy about it.

Thomas More, a lawyer, author, and statesman, coined the word "utopia," and described it as an ideal (fictitious) island nation. Here's an overview of More's Utopia (also here):

According to Wikipedia, Net Neutrality refers to a principle that is applied to residential broadband networks, free of restrictions on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, on the modes of communication allowed, that does not restrict content, sites, or platforms and where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams would be considered neutral by most observers.

According to Google, Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet. The company observes that fundamentally, net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet.

The problem with that position is that it doesn't fit even the basic business (revenue generating) model. Google has been operating with an advertising revenue model that is changing (not growing) even as you read this post. Google is to the Internet what Wal-Mart is to manufacturing -- they provide none of the Internet but make a whole lot of money using it. To even think that Google has the ability to provide an unbiased view of the topic is to think that American automobile manufacturers naturally support carbon-neutral energy sources.

Here's the more simple analysis. In our neighborhood (yours and mine), we have dirt roads. Suppose there's a campaign started that requires all local, state and federal governments to provide unlimited access to improved roads for all vehicles. Let's call it "Street Neutrality." I ride a bicycle, you drive a sedan, and Joe, the guy down the street, drives a semi truck. Are we all supportive of this campaign? Absolutely! The problem comes with implementation.

The roadways in our city are made of concrete, about two inches thick and ten feet wide. I am the first one to drive on the roadway, and I really enjoy the comfortable drive. The curves are gently sloped, the roads are flawless on the surface, and they are plenty wide for me -- even if I like to swerve back and forth. You are the second to drive on the roads. You, too, enjoy the drive, and though you tend to drive like you are on the Interstate (hopefully I am already off the roads), the slope of the curves allows your tires to grip the road surface just right.

And then along comes Joe. He's got a trailer on the back of his truck, so the width of the road is a problem -- especially around the curves. That trailer has some heavy merchandise in it, so the thickness of the road is a problem. We both notice the problems Joe is having, so we force our city to build wider and thicker roads and build sidewalks for me and my bike.

And then the tax bill comes.

Each of us notice our taxes went up, and we are not especially pleased about it. We get together and walk down to City Hall to see what the problem is. We are told that because of the additional work, the city had to spend more money to improve the roads then they had in the annual budget. They explain that the added costs are needed to install and maintain a roadway infrastructure that will support large semis like Joe's while providing way too much support for your sedan and my bike. You and I glance at each other and almost immediately glare at Joe, vowing to find a way to opt out of supporting this in the future. We return home and immediately start a neighborhood petition. I think you can fill in the rest of the story . . .

So how does this all shake out? Telecom companies (or power companies) will provide Internet access just like we currently get water, electricity, and trash pickup. They used to provide dial-up (dirt roads) but realized that enough of us wanted and were willing to pay for DSL or Cable Internet. A few of us need much more bandwidth, and the rest of us got tired of paying extra (remember, we join social networks and upload pictures and video for free). There will be a basic fee for a up to a certain amount and then there will be added charges for those users who want more than the average customer.

We may not like it, but we wouldn't be able to run our own companies any other way.

This post was provided without adding added burden to the Internet . . .

What do you think?


Dirk Avery said...

I disagree. The market is great at fixing lots of things but not everything. If water companies started providing cleaner water to those also used electricity from the same company, because it increased its profits, we would all agree there's a problem. When the Internet was originally provided, it was a non-essential utility. However, it has become essential to the economic, educational, and social welfare of those connected. That companies use their leverage over people based on an essential to make a profit is a market failure. The same market failure has led to heavy regulation of utilities whether they are state run or not.

carterfsmith said...

Re: If water companies started providing cleaner water to those also using electricity from the same company, yes, there's a problem. But there's a bigger problem with them providing more water to my neighbors and charging us the same, no?

If my neighbor washed his four SUVs, watered his lawn, and refilled his swimming pool every day and we both got the same bill, I would be concerned. If when I took my half-full, city-provided trash can to the curb next Tuesday and my neighbor had three overflowing cans and regularly had boxes full of trash from his office and old lawn mowers from his son's repair business and yet we both paid the same for trash pickup, I would be upset -- even if he was a city councilman.

How is that any different than the attitude I would get if I had cable Internet (I do not) and it bogged down to a crawl every afternoon starting 3 minutes after school lets out because my neighbor's kids were up-and-downloading songs, pics, and pirated software until way past their bedtime? (hypothetically speaking :-)