I read two compelling, yet contrary, takes on the question of “net neutrality” this week, one by Douglas Holtzeakin, the other by Doc Searls.
Holtzeakin, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, argues in a Financial Times op-ed against using legislation or regulation to protect the “one-size-fits-all” neutrality of the internet. He contends that “one cannot find a real-world network that operates neutrally”:
Try freight transport. If I want to buy a case of French wine, I can have it shipped ocean freight. If I want it quickly, I can pay more and have it flown to the US. [Or] think of traditional poles-and-wires telephony. Even in those networks, many consumers have the option – and parents of teenagers typically pursue it – of paying more for greater capacity, or “call waiting”. These arrangements have flowed naturally from market forces and reflect the nearly limitless capacity of tailored contracts to meet the dual goals of cost recovery and optimising customer satisfaction.
The internet, he says, should be allowed to evolve in the same way, guided by market forces rather than regulatory fiat.
In an article in Linux Journal, Searls argues that the internet’s neutrality needs to be safeguarded if it is to continue to be a platform for innovation. To Searls, the past offers plenty of examples of neutral networks, the openness of which provided large public benefits:
How about framing the Net as rivers and oceans, which nobody owns and which float everybody’s boat? Or how about framing the Net as public land? [Or] how about framing the Net as the “Information Highway” that became a cliche (without ever quite happening) a decade ago? To get what I mean by that, consider what the US would be like today if we hadn’t created the Interstate Highway System fifty years ago. What would the lack of Interstate Highway infrastructure have cost us by now?
The analogy to roads is particularly interesting because it seems to cut both ways. Searls is right that having an open road system, with free and equal access to all, has provided a wealth of economic benefits. On the other hand, as anyone who has driven into or out of a big city recently knows, those roads are often horribly jammed, resulting in the waste of huge amounts of people’s time. Holtzeakin picks up on this theme:
The profound desire to pretend that highways are free has produced massive urban congestion – and a revolution in the form of toll roads and even congestion pricing. When London decided to charge for its valuable automobile capacity at peak times, the city did not disappear. Instead, it raised the social value of the overall traffic network by creating explicit priorities and the open opportunity for all to choose – or not – to pursue them.
Holtzeakin seems a little too sanguine about the power of large network operators to control or distort market forces. But I think Searls goes too far in saying that the choice is between “net neutrality” or “net neutering.” I’m not sure it’s so black and white. A lot of different people use the internet for a lot of different purposes. The goal should be to accommodate as many uses as possible rather than to limit them based on narrow commercial or ideological interests. Just because public highways are good doesn’t mean toll roads are bad.