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Open or Neutral: Pick One

Should the Internet of the future be just like the Internet of the past? If the net neutrality movement – an often raucous coalition of law professors, public interest advocates, political bloggers and others – gets its way, we can brace ourselves for more of the same: More web sites, more social networking, more picture sharing, more email, but little else.

Net neutrality focuses on preserving the Web, but the Internet is more than the Web, it’s also Voice over Internet Protocol services like Skype and Vonage, it’s gaming, it’s video conferencing and much more. By traffic volume, the Web is actually less than a quarter of the Internet today, and its share is declining. While net neutrality aims to preserve the Web, a more expansive Open Internet perspective is needed to preserve the innovation potential of the Internet as a whole.

“Open” and “neutral” aren’t really the same thing. The Internet can’t be both because applications don’t have the same needs: some require low delay delivery of small pieces of information, some require low cost delivery of a lot of information, and some, like the Web, only require generic service.  The regulatory battle is largely about the legitimacy of the enhanced network services needed by specialized applications. The underlying issue is whether we allow the next generation of applications to develop with gusto or whether we stifle them by insisting that all traffic is treated in the same, neutral fashion both on wired networks serving web sites and everywhere else.  “Open” is preferable to “neutral.”

If there was ever any doubt that the net neutrality agenda was counter-productive, it ended when the entire net neutrality movement went ballistic at the mere suggestion that Google and Verizon were talking about regulatory policy. Tech blogs in particular dropped their usual veneer of semi-journalistic impartiality to let loose full-throated roars against Google as a “surrender monkey,” a “sellout,” and a secret co-conspirator. The Google-Verizon talks were so un-secret, in fact, that both firms openly discussed them at a public panel discussion at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, DC this February that was well covered by the press.  While they’re good at “link-baiting” and hyperbole, net neutrality advocates suffer from a lack of imagination.

Many of the most compelling applications that networking visionaries have waiting in the wings require somewhat different behavior from the Internet than the service it provides to the Web. Real-time communications apps such as telepresence (a really, really good form of video conferencing between multiple groups of people) need an occasional boost to overcome periods of sub-second “congestion” caused, ironically, by quirks in the Internet’s congestion avoidance system. Providing this kind of acceleration costs money, especially on wireless networks, and network operators need to be paid for providing it. Charging a fee – even a small one – for short periods of acceleration by tenths of a second also prevents people from gaming the system. This is especially important on wireless networks where bandwidth is limited.

Neutralists fear that opening the door to selective acceleration of telepresence and similar apps would open the door to such nefarious practices as boosting the performance of some web sites at the expense of others, exclusive content bundling deals, the loss of free speech, and worse.

The solution to the openness dilemma is actually quite straightforward, especially to the economists who’ve generally regard the Internet regulation dustup with horror: The law should permit ISPs to sell high-priority services to application providers who need them, as long as priority services are offered on a fair and reasonable basis to all comers, are entirely voluntary, and don’t degrade Web access in a meaningful way.

A genuinely open Internet embraces new and innovative applications as well as traditional Web-based services; like a good parent, it loves all its children the same. Technically naïve neutrality rules conflict with expansive openness and force us to make a choice: Do we want a vibrantly open Internet that plays host to a diverse pool of applications, or merely a blindly neutral and timid one? We can’t have both, especially in the brave new world of mobile broadband, because of resource limits that are likely to remain for a very long time.

Protecting Internet openness with economic neutrality is the best way forward, despite what you may have read on the Internet.  A great deal of the chatter has been caused by people and organizations that profit by fear and confusion, but this time clear thinking and sensible policy need to prevail.

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