Libertarian Ramblings

A reminder to be sane about net neutrality

Posted by gravisman on June 20, 2008

As an internet geek, it’s very easy for me to fly off the handle at any rumor of Comcast or any of the other major ISPs limiting my ability to freely and fully access the internet. The internet is a precious commodity, and its openness is what makes it so great. Thoughts of anyone tampering with the openness of the network don’t sit well in my heart.

The last year or so has seen increased debate on the issue of net neutrality as alarmists fear that ISPs will try to take part of the internet away or lessen its efficacy toward the end of their own monetary gain. The most basic fear is that ISPs will implement technology that allows them to prioritize certain kinds of traffic on their network, and then extort money from the websites that wish to be prioritized. With that done, small websites and anyone refusing to pay ISPs a ransom for the bandwidth to reach the customers on the ends of their connections would have a distinct disadvantage and possibly fade away. An even more alarmist idea is the ridiculous notion that ISPs would and could turn the internet into a television-like subscription service where the customer has to pay extra to access any sites not in a pre-selected package of sites. For those who haven’t heard that craziness, check this out:

I don’t think I even need to comment on how insane this idea is. Anyone who understands how market forces (and the internet itself) work knows this is entirely impractical and you probably wish you had your five minutes back from watching that video.

There still remains, however, the more general issue of net neutrality, relating to preferential treatment of traffic. Many people are so afraid of what could happen that there has been a major movement to pass legislation guaranteeing the idea that the internet will remain entirely neutral in the traffic it servers for years to come. Many big guns including our friends at Google support such a law. It sounds like a great idea on the surface. After all, who likes the idea of the evil ISPs controlling what traffic we can get through our paid for internet connects, and how effectively we get it? It’s enough to scare any nerd into activism.

Reality check time. When did we start thinking government regulation is the solution to internet problems? Especially hypothetical internet problems (ok, bit-torrent throttling is a real issue today, but that’s not the same as prioritizing web-sites, and that’s a problem that will likely get worked out as ISPs grow up to the modern internet). We nerds have a mostly great track record for shunning government intervention in our affairs – especially when it comes to our beloved internet. Somehow, though, we have been scared and duped en mass to supporting a piece of legislation that would have far reaching effects on our favorite toy now and into the future. One of the biggest problems with government regulation of just about anything is unforeseen consequences, and with something that grows and evolves as fast as the internet, unintended consequences aren’t a possibility – they’re a guarantee.

I can already imagine circumstances in which I might be hamstrung by a government decree that all traffic must be treated equally. Suppose I’m interviewing for a job over a video phone call on IP, and suddenly a few roommates start downloading movies they’ve decided to buy. The technology could exist to correctly shape the traffic so that my video phone call stays working at the bandwidth it needs, setting the downloads at a lower priority. Since that would be illegal, my call drops and I lose the job. With the future of HD television very possibly being delivered over IP, that too clouds the situation – I want my tv to just work, right?

The point is simple: we should all be smarter than to think that government is the answer to the internet. The very thing everyone is afraid of is losing their ability to be completely free online. Since when does more government equal more free? Let us please keep our heads and let the market work it out.

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