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Network neutrality a polarizing issue

January 1, 2007

in All Articles,Culture,Politics

Network neutrality owes a good portion of its popularity to Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). His misunderstanding of what he was talking about inadvertently brought to light a confusing but important issue.

“The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand those tubes can be filled, and if they’re filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line, it’s gonna be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube, enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.”

The quote is from a speech by Stevens on June 28, 2006, criticizing network neutrality legislation. It’s been satirized and critiqued to death by everyone, from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to approximately thirteen kajillion bloggers. As tempting as it is, I won’t add to the cacophony except to use Stevens’ quote to support my point: Legislation shouldn’t be determined by those who don’t understand what they’re legislating.

True, the Internet is not a truck. But nor is it a series of tubes. This and the rest of Stevens’ confusing speech illustrate his poor understanding of Internet basics. If it was an attempt to simplify the concept for his audience, the simplification was wrong.

I’m not a mechanic. I see the mechanic because he knows more about my car than I do. If I were to say, “My car’s making a funny noise. I think something’s clogged in the series of tubes,” the mechanic would roll his eyes and have a “weird customer story” to tell coworkers.

In a proper world, the mechanic would be the one publicly critiquing laws dealing with car repair. But in our world, the “weird customer” is the one like Senator Stevens, influencing on a national level. A misunderstanding of the subject could easily lead to the wrong legislation.

Are all Websites created equal?

Network neutrality is legislation stating all information on the Internet (websites, videos, email, chats, games, file transfers, et cetera) is equal – no type of traffic gets priority over another.

Critics of network neutrality are Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. They want to have the right to prioritize certain types of Internet traffic. For example, take YouTube: Because it’s so popular, and video takes a lot of bandwidth, Internet service providers want to be able to charge YouTube more money than others, giving YouTube videos higher priority. The ISPs make more money, because they can charge people for priority delivery, and content providers like YouTube have higher bills.

Well-known proponents of network neutrality are the Internet’s heavy hitters for products and services, including Amazon, eBay, Google, Intel, Internet2, Skype, and Yahoo. They say no information should be prioritized, and all data speeding around the Internet should be treated equally: My email to you is delivered with the same priority as a CNN “breaking news” video. This insures news and information from the little guys won’t be drowned out by prioritized traffic from the big guys with deeper pockets.

Where is network neutrality now?

As of this writing, there is no network neutrality legislation, though the push is becoming stronger. The Internet has survived so far without legislation, due to the good will of ISPs: They haven’t yet charged for traffic based on content, but there are no rules preventing them from doing so. Now that midterm elections are over, maybe we’ll see things start to change.

Welcome to the future

Network neutrality is a frustrating but necessary change for the short term, but only if ISPs abuse their position. This messy hullabaloo is caused because we’re in the middle of an Internet content explosion: Information is available anywhere at any time. ISPs are scared this is going to overload their infrastructure, and want to be able to charge more money to guarantee services. Content providers and end users don’t want fees added to already high Internet service bills, and they’re worried about their content becoming harder to access because their competitors pay ISPs more money.

A big part of the network neutrality debate depends on bandwidth. As technology improves, home DSL and cable Internet connections will become faster or will be replaced by better solutions. The Internet is a high-tech but young infant. Give it time to develop and mature, and we’ll soon outgrow bandwidth-caused issues like network neutrality.

In the meantime, be proud of the Internet’s unregulated history, its free and unrestricted exchange of ideas. But like any world-dominating, culture-morphing phenomenon, growth and change are inevitable. As consumers, it’s up to us to make sure the change and growth are for the best reasons. What side you’re on depends on how much you trust ISPs, and what you think about regulation of the Internet as a whole.

Learn more from net neutrality advocates or visit the net neutrality opposition.

Hear Ted Stevens’ entire speech about network neutrality.

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