Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Great Network Neutrality Debate

Boing Boing quotes Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library, on Net Neutrality -- audio and transcript now available:

There are a couple of different ways to look at this. There's the romantic way, right? The romantic way is that we want to have the Internet as the wild frontier for entrepreneurship, and that's a strong case. There's also the liberal free speech argument, which says we want the Internet to be a level playing field so a variety of voices can enter the public sphere. That's a fairly strong argument. But then you've got the economic argument, which is those of us who write checks every month to these companies, we want to be able to know that we are getting decent service for what we're paying. If my broadband company next week starts dialing down my Skype speed so Skype doesn't work as well for me, I might not even know it or notice it for a long time, until Skype starts frustrating me, and out of frustration, I'm just going to pick up my old phone and dial India the old-fashioned way and just pay for it because I know the call's going to go through. That's the sort of frustration and opacity we might start seeing on the Internet. So it is a service question, a competition question, an economic development question, a consumer question. And it really is dollars and cents.

Good straight talking but it makes me wonder if Siva realised he was also arguing for the opposition. I have had this lurking atavistic feeling throughout the network neutrality debate, that if Sony or AOL (say) want to pay for better service, then why shouldn't they be able to? People do the same in every other industry - cf business class air travel - including communications services like snail mail post.

The answer of course is more complex - that the Internet is an essential service and therefore must be subject to minimum service guarantees for everyone if it is to flourish. (yet the same could have been said of snail mail - and surely if I pay for first class mail this does indeed divert "bandwidth" from second class mail in exactly the same way? certainly judging by the standard of second class post in the UK right now :-) But it's good to see one of the "copyfighters" realising that economics will generally trump romantic rhetoric and (as with yesterday's post on privacy activists) the network neutrality samurai have got to be very aware of this in the debates.

I look forward to getting hold of Yochai Benkler's new book which will no doubt teach me the error of my ways:-)


Siva said...

We won't be paying for better service. We will be paying for worse service.

And besides, we are not just talking about service. We are talking about content.

Thanks for the link and quote!


Lilian Edwards said...

Doesn't it depend who "we" are?

But yes, I take your point about content - see next post on Network Neutrality pt 2.

Thanks for stopping by!