People who write about technology love to huff and puff and hyperbolize. The fate of the entire world seems to hang on every move made by Microsoft, or Google, or Apple. Every new smart phone gets billed as a potential “iPhone killer,” while every new product from Apple represents the dawn of a new era. It’s ridiculous—and exhausting.
The latest version of this mad opera occurred in early August after Google and Verizon issued a set of proposals about Net neutrality. The announcement sent tech pundits into a tizzy. They declared that Google had sold its soul to the devil and become, as one wag put it, “a carrier-humping net neutrality surrender monkey.”
The outrage arises because Google has for years been a champion of Net neutrality—the notion that phone carriers (like Verizon) should not be able to play favorites when it comes to the traffic moving over their wires. If we didn’t have Net neutrality, carriers could do things like penalize companies that use a lot of bandwidth or create high-speed lanes and charge Internet companies extra fees to send their stuff over them. That would give an advantage to big companies and make life harder for startups. Carriers could also create special channels for bandwidth-heavy traffic (movies, videogames) and charge users extra for access to them.
This stuff freaks out the open-Internet proponents. They envision a doomsday scenario in which the Internet splinters. Web sites would have to strike deals with carriers to get decent throughput speeds for their content. Some Web sites might not be available on some carriers. We might end up with a “public Internet” that is a low-speed, junk-strewn ghetto, and one or many private Internets that are fast but expensive.
But hardcore Net-neutrality proponents should try looking at things through the eyes of the carriers. These companies pay to build out the network, while companies like Google, eBay, and Amazon earn billions by free-riding on their wires. You can see why the carriers might feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick.
Worse, increasing traffic is overwhelming the system. Carrier networks were originally built for connecting phone calls. Now they’re getting swamped with bandwidth-hogging data applications. Keeping up will require huge investments. Who’s going to pay for that?
Net-neutrality proponents howled when Comcast started throttling traffic from BitTorrent, a bandwidth-hogging program people use to swap video files. The Federal Communications Commission sided with the open-Internet folks, ruling that Comcast could not selectively choke off traffic. But earlier this year the FCC ruling was overturned. A federal court said the FCC didn’t have authority to enforce Net neutrality.
If the FCC isn’t in charge, who is? That’s why Google and Verizon tried to work out some kind of framework. Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School, says the gist of their proposal is simple: “Here’s what we suggest Congress should do, which is leave as much of this as possible to us rather than to the FCC, after establishing a couple of the ground rules.”
One idea that raised concerns is a suggestion from Google and Verizon that Net-neutrality rules should not apply to wireless networks. Critics see an attempt to protect a market (mobile devices and wireless) that soon will become the most important part of computing. Zittrain points out that the agreement is only a starting point that “will frame the next phase of the debates.” That’s not as sexy as declaring a techno-Armageddon, but it’s probably closer to the truth.