A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Net Neutrality

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

In case it’s a new term to you, net neutrality is the idea that there should not be preferential treatment given to how information is transmitted across the Internet.

That seems like a pretty simple concept, but keep in mind that even though the Web is public, various components of it are privately owned. And the companies that own those components feel they should be able to charge for their use as they see fit since they foot the bill for building and maintaining it.

The FCC has long held a position in favor of net neutrality, but their jurisdiction has been restricted recently. So they’re in a tough position with this latest round of activity, which centers on the (mostly negative) reaction to Google and Verizon’s August proposal to maintain net neutrality on wired connections, but allow for “differentiated online services” across wireless networks.

Things get complicated quickly. It’s a slightly different set of circumstances in the wireless world, since those networks are wholly owned by single entities, for the most part. (Verizon owns its network, AT&T owns its network, etc.) And there are much more difficult issues of supply and demand at the moment – the network owners simply can’t keep up with the explosive growth in demand as more and more people buy and use smartphones and other data-aware mobile devices.

So it’s not quite as simple as the old-guard, open-Web purists would have you believe, but it is troubling that something like this could open the doors to a two-tiered Web where it’s faster and easier to get some information than other.

It’s one thing if corporate partnerships make it easier for you to watch your favorite NBC shows than to watch your favorite CBS shows on your mobile device because of some corporate partnership they’ve struck, but it’s another entirely if those partnerships make it difficult or impossible to access news with a particular editorial position for example, or worse, if they squelch innovation and consumer choice by blocking apps or features that compete with their favored apps or features.

Bottom line: anything other than full net neutrality is likely to be a loss for consumers (and citizens, though I hate to get too high-falutin’), but the issue deserves better than to be reduced to silly sound bites.

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