Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quick Departure

I'm going to take a few paragraphs here to discuss another topic outside the typical vein of the blog. That issue is Net Neutrality.
As a netizen for lo these many years (almost 25 now), the thought of a free (as in liberty) and open internet has been something that seemed completely inherent in the 'net. That someone would come along and consider restricting access was bound to crop up, but the thought is anathema to the openness of the 'net.
I look at the issue from two perspectives - as a consumer and as a small business owner - and this latter perspective is where I have the primary concerns. As a consumer, I already (over)pay for access to the internet and it seems reasonable, based on other costs, that I should. I already pay for electricity, gas, and water - internet access seems like another service being provided and the provider deserves to be compensated for that access. I can even choose how much I want to pay for the bandwidth I choose to consume - again, all reasonable. I would, however, be concerned with a "prioritized traffic" provider. I should be able to access all of the legal content I want to access when I want to access it, provided that I'm paying for that right.
As a business owner, though, I have serious concerns. The crux of the net neutrality debate is centered around businesses providing content. Services like BitTorrent were just a symptom of what the industry as a whole was experiencing - a lot of people using a lot of bandwidth. That BitTorrent could be used to break the law was, I'm certain, an impetus for internet providers. They saw this as an opportunity to "tax" business owners to get access to their services. As an ISP, the thought of all of the potential funding just below the surface would be irresistible. And it makes sense. "As a user of our network," they'd reason, "you should be required to pay commensurate with the amount of traffic you're pushing over our network." This is, however, just over the concept of "reasonable". Why? Business owners are already paying for access to the internet from their hosting services. And there are, literally, thousands of ISPs - should businesses have to pay every since ISP to prioritize their traffic? I can only assume the ISP answer to that question would be a resounding "yes!"
The biggest concern for me is the following scenario. Assume that the providers are able to prioritize their traffic based on who pays them. As a company that's not Google or Microsoft or Apple, I'm at a significant competitive disadvantage if I can't pay to get my traffic prioritized. The average person using the web will not wait more than a few seconds for a web page to display before they pick a different page (i.e, not mine). If there's a delay in displaying my information because my traffic isn't prioritized highly because I couldn't afford to pay every telco that wants to provide internet access, I lose customers or, at the very least, customer satisfaction suffers.
One of the arguments against net neutrality is that if companies haven't done it yet, there's no reason for them to do so in the future. There are a few points to be debated here, but the three that ring most true for me are: a) companies haven't really been able to do this yet, so there's been no real test of this concept, b) companies have a terrible history of doing things in people's best interest (look at the labor revolution of the late 19th century for a great example - and then go thank a union worker), and c) they're already looking at it. Comcast began to packet filter BitTorrent traffic - determined via empirical tests. And it's not that far of a leap from selectively filtering traffic to charging for that traffic. This also causes problems for consumers who now need to determine whether their provider will allow them to access the content they want to view.
So you may be asking where I stand on the whole issue (if you haven't already jumped to a conclusion). Actually, I prefer that we take a "wait and see" attitude, but we need to provide an organization - it can be the FCC, but I'd prefer an elected body rather than appointed - to oversee and insure that things don't get out of hand. We should be proactive rather than reactive to the potential direction this issue could move. Time and again we've seen that as things progress without direct confrontation about it, people become willing to accept the status quo, not status quo ante. I don't believe we need regulation, but we do need the ability to quickly address any complaints.