"Net neutrality" is a concept or idea or position that internet users that purchase the same "tier" or level of service from an internet service provider ought to get the same level of service. As Tim Berners-Lee (who truly did invent the internet) says: "If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level."1
Another approach is defining the term is as follows:
“Net neutrality” is shorthand for the idea that the government should mandate that ISPs should largely act as dumb pipes that transmit data across the net without regards to what is in the data packets.2
The concept has generally come to be equated with the idea of "internet freedom" by which is meant, "freedom" from any filtering, blocking, speed of access throttling, or other intervention (principally by ISPs) of the internet. Packet sniffing is also a concern of net neutrality proponents. (Companies like Google use packet sniffing to scan emails sent by their Gmail users for keywords that they (Google) can then use to deliver up ads to those same email users.)
Another practice that would seem to fly in the face of "net neutrality" is that of favoring the delivery of one type of content versus another. Comcast was the subject of a lawsuit for doing this (which they appeared at one point wiling to settle). Recently though, they won this case. Seems Comcast was throttling BitTorrent downloads. Content providers are particularly concerned about this as are ISPs, but from different sides of the issue. Content providers want unfettered access to their content and ISPs are concerned with the extent to which certain types of content (mainly video) is making out-sized demands on their bandwidth3.
There are interesting proponents and opponents in this battle. Google is majorly involved in web filtering (i.e., in the case of spam blocking) and they are engaged in rampant packet sniffing (which is how they deliver context-based ads on the pages where Gmail users check their email), yet Google says it is committed to net neutrality.
We are concerned that net neutrality is going to be used as a blunt weapon to defeat the idea of ISP blocking of download sites hosting pirated intellectual property4. Net neutrality is one of those ideas that sounds alturistic and good, but the devil is in the details. Does it mean that we should not block web sites that traffic in child pornography? Does it mean that we should stop blocking spam emailers? Does it mean that Google should stop sniffing our emails to power some of their marketing efforts? It depends on which side of these issues you are on. We would argue that societies pass all kinds of laws that fetter speech and outlaw certain behaviors for the good of society and that outweighs the harm to or infringement of freedoms such laws cause certain individuals.
FCC Net Neutrality Initiative Update
The currently (Jan. 29, 2009) proposed FCC Net Neutrality Draft Rules…
impose no obligation on ISPs to permit "the transfer of unlawful content" or the "unlawful transfer of content."5
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is all over this proposed FCC rule making. See this recent RIAA Press Release on the subject.
Technology has forced a tidal wave of change in the delivery system of much of media including music, newspapers and magazines and is starting to seriously impact the movie and television distribution model. Books are probably in the cross hairs too. Our position is that the new internet delivery system model should not result in the total destruction of an entire system of copyright and intellectual property protections!! Rather, the narrow and focused blocking of intellectual property "pirate" sites and the interdiction of illegal file sharing is an acceptable compromise of pure philosophical net neutrality given the benefits to society at large. Should this compromise not be achieved, the creative arts will wither away to a shadow of their former and even current condition.
Our Take On Net Neutrality
We believe that net neutrality is a pipedream. It never really existed, doesn't exist now and shouldn't exist in the future. We believe its proponents are either naive and foolish or pushing net neutrality because they believe it gives them a competitive advantage.
The internet is nothing more than a communications medium. Moreover, its a man made communications medium. Its capabilities are a function of the many decisions made along the way as to how it passes information (packets and error checking). Nothing is neutral about it any more than the design of radio spectrum or cable TV interconnection is "neutral."
We view the internet too as a virtual community—a virtual world. People inhabit it (social networks, home pages, etc.). People interact with one another. They go to the "mall" and individual stores on it. They listen to music, watch TV and movies. They purchase. They sell. They think and dream and vent (blogs).
So, given all that, given that it is our virtual world, are we to presume that unlike the real world, it will have no rules, regulations and laws? The limitations on free speech applied in the real world to child pornography are not going to be applied to it?
If you walk into a music store and steal a CD, you are subject to many laws and if you get caught, you face criminal and civil penalties. But, on the internet, on the altar of 'net neutrality," we are free to steal that same CD in digital form?
In the real world, shop keepers and restaurant owners are free to choose to sell and not sell whatever products they choose. But, somehow on the internet, the "shop owners" who deliver products to us (i.e., the internet service providers) are not allowed to chose which products they "sell"6? That's BS. If ISPs are sick of having their bandwidth clogged up by thieves stealing music, movies, TV shows, and software, why shouldn't they be able to block the pirate sites delivering that illegally obtained product??
One of the best expositions we know of concerning the absurdity of all of this is an article entitled "World Wide Mush" written by Jaron Lanier. Jaron used to be one of the brilliant starry eyed idealists that once believed everything on the net should be "free and easy." That is, until he realized that such views were destroying his and many others' abilities to actually make the living that allows them to pursue the work they love!! One of the best lines in World Wide Mush" is this:
All too often, a youthful perspective falls prey to the fallacy of collectivism.
Jaron goes on to say…
I don't want our young people aggregated, even by a benevolent social-networking site. I want them to develop as fierce individuals, and to earn their living doing exactly that. When they work together, I hope they'll do so in competitive, genuinely distinct teams so that they can get honest feedback and create big-time innovations that earn royalties, instead of spending all their time on crowd-pleasing gambits to seek kudos. this is not just so that they and their children will thrive, but so that they won't become a mob, which, as history has shown us again and again, is a vulnerability of human nature.
We will leave this subject here, because the case can not be made more powerfully than that.