"Net neutrality" is stupid

Today's net neutrality tempest - Google: are they or aren't they? - is a marketing mistake with grave public policy implications.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor on

Today's net neutrality tempest - Google: are they or aren't they? - is a marketing mistake with grave public policy implications. The mistake was law professor Tim Wu's: creating a new label when a perfectly good one is already there.

"Net neutrality" is another term for "common carrier," first used for US telecommunications over 150 years ago. If advocates would just use "common carrier" instead of "network neutrality" we could quickly put this debate behind us.

Instead, by making "network neutrality" something new, controversy is created in what should be a settled area: common carrier status for communication infrastructure. Common carrier simply means that carriers handle all comers at a set fee, instead of auctioning access to their network.

Update: Professor Wu kindly sent me a brief note which said, in part: ". . . when I started using the term, CC was a non-starter in the policy world."

I responded "Your comment makes me very curious about why CC was a non-starter in the policy world. Federalist Society weirdness? Allergic Bushies? Dereg mania? Or something substantive?" If and when I get a response from Professor Wu, I'll pass it on. End update.

The auction model If network access is sold through an auction, the wealthy get good service and the rest of us get the leftovers. Carriers put their time and energy into maximizing revenue instead of minimizing costs.

If network access is available to all comers for a fee, then we all have equal opportunity to use the Internet for work or play. Providers can offer different service levels at different prices.

Look at FedEx: overnight costs more than 3-day delivery. But the important thing is that overnight costs everyone the same. Imagine going to a FedEx office with a time-critical legal document and instead of a flat fee they said "we have 1 overnight slot available - you'll bid against these other people." Very profitable for FedEx - not so good for you - or the country.

The sad thing Tim Wu, the law professor who originated the term "network neutrality" in the paper Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination (long, boring PDF) admitted as much:

Over the history of communications regulation, the Government has employed both common carriage requirements (similar to the neutrality regime discussed here) and limits on vertical integration as means of preventing unwanted discrimination. The goal of this section is to further explain how a common carriage or anti-discrimination model might be better developed to address the current Internet environment.

[emphasis added] Professor Wu is a very bright guy with a technology background who clerked for conservative superstar Richard Posner. Like many techies though, he has no marketing chops whatever.

The Storage Bits take The carriers, be they telco or cable, would love to be able extort high fees from users, and politicians love getting big campaign contributions for defending the "free market." BTW, the US Congress is an auction-based service provider - how do you feel about them?

But it is in the national economic interest that we have a high-speed Internet infrastructure that is available to all without discrimination. You know, a national freeway for data.

As I noted in an earlier post (see P4P: faster, smarter P2P) about Comcast, the telecoms want to make their network management problem your problem.

Rather than saying they can’t compete with DSL or fixing the problem through protocol or equipment upgrades, they’ve been fighting the common-carrier law.

That’s just wrong. Common carrier status for telecom is over 160 years old. It has stood the test of time for very good reasons. Comcast needs to get with the program: either get competitive . . . or get out.

It isn't too late to frame the debate in a term that the public better understands and supports. Google can start by banishing the term "net neutrality" from their vocabulary. Hey, Google! Just do a "search" and replace. Think you can manage that?

Comments welcome, of course. Disclosure: I work on the Internet and live in the boonies. Non-discriminatory Internet access is of intense personal and business interest to me.

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