a case for market backed net neutrality

A Case For Market Backed Net Neutrality

November 3rd, 2009 | By: Michael Merritt

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www_2I just finished reading Michael van der Galien’s article about maintaining the free press in America.  I watched Glenn Beck’s segment on net neutrality.  And for a while I’ve been following the arguments both for and against the idea of legislating net neutrality.  Frankly, I’m split on the subject.

The libertarian part of me thinks that the Internet Service Providers should be able to create whatever packages they wish, and at whatever prices levels.  However, another part of me – we’ll call it the “economically conservative” part, as to differentiate from the Ayn Rand followers – would like to point out that it is not only ISPs that have benefited from the development of the Internet.  Businesses all across the world, and not only the Silicon Valley giants, have been able to harness the Internet in order to grow and make a living.

There is the possibility that making the Internet non-neutral would have a negative effect on some businesses.  Therefore, based on economic reasons alone, I back net neutrality.  However, I think the neutrality ought to be market backed; that is, demanded by consumers, and not legislated by the government.  Yet, a future where market backed net neutrality is a reality will see some consequences for everyone involved.

Lets play a game of hypotheticals.  Where would we be today if the Internet had not been relatively neutral?  If Tim-Berners Lee had patented and charged for his invention of the World Wide Web?  If Linus Torvalds had charged for Linux, the operating system that currently runs a majority of web servers, in which the freely available Apache dominates?  The world might be a different place, or it might not.  Maybe someone else would have arisen to the challenge.  My point is that the world could be a different place now if these platforms were not freely available for development of the Web.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that ISPs give away their services for free.  All I’m saying is that net neutrality gave rise to the Web that we all now take for granted.  It allowed entrepreneurs, including ones from the ISPs, to embrace these technologies to power their businesses.  After all, what would an ISP be if its clients did not have a web server to connect to, or the World Wide Web to facilitate that connection?

And it’s not only ISPs that have had access to develop businesses under the neutral and ever evolving Web.  Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and those are only the tech sites.  How about retail?  Amazon, Buy.com, eBay, Woot.com, and many others.  I myself work for a company that has seen success due to the existence of the Web.  It’s not only corporations, either.  Several webcomics that I read started off small, but now their authors are able to support themselves entirely off the webcomic.

As I’ve done research on this topic, I noticed that the critics of net neutrality tend to be the ISPs themselves, as well as cable and hardware manufacturers, such as Cisco and AT&T.  The supporters tend to be the clients of these companies.  Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft all support net neutrality.  There is an argument to be made that the Googles of the world would be nowhere without the hardware infrastructure to support such businesses and access to the Web provided by ISPs like AT&T.  Another argument, which I think is the more compelling one, would be that the manufacturers and ISPs would be nowhere without clients to buy their hardware and access services.

Yet, video hosts like YouTube and Vimeo, or picture hosts like Flickr and Photobucket use huge amounts of data transfer per month.  They already pay their web hosts or datacenters a large amount of money to do this, but what about my ISP and your ISP?  They have already indicated they want a chunk of the profits from sites like YouTube, as they must carry the increased bandwidth.  Presumably, if they don’t get it, they’ll either pass on all the cost to their clients, or else created tiered services, making premium packages the would allow better access to video and audio streams.

I hardly think that’s desirable, and I’m not sure that Internet users would go for it.  Personally, I like to be able to get my text, audio, and video data at the same threshold of access.  On the other hand, we can’t expect people like Google to pay for everything, as they too will pass on the costs to their clients.  Lest we forget that YouTube is only just now finding its way toward profit.

This is why I think the future might be something of a sharing of the costs between the user, the ISP, and the companies offering video and audio services.  Unless data transfer suddenly becomes dirt cheap, everyone will have to play their part.  It’s probably the only way that this debate will be resolved, as pushing the costs on just one side will make access to these services impossible.  But, with all sides supporting the costs of an increasingly audiovisual Internet, that ought to make it remain relatively neutral.  And there won’t be a need for any government regulation to enforce it.

My theory has some flaws, of course.  What of start-ups?  Would they themselves not find access to this market impossible to achieve under such conditions?  Not necessarily.  If they can find capital funding, it ought to simpler from there-on-out.  But what of those who don’t have that kind of access, but yet have an ambition to make their plan succeed?  And somewhat related: how would ISPs differentiate their approach between a behemoth like Google and the start-up.  What of sites that are only tangentially related to the audiovisual services industry, such as the multimedia-in-nature blogsphere?

I don’t have a good answer for those questions as of yet.  Perhaps some sort of sliding scale in fees for the start-ups, but I couldn’t provide any specifics.

Still, I see the future of the Internet as providing neutral access to all who want to use it, even if that neutrality comes at a bit of a price for everyone.  Users will still be able to access all kinds of data without having to subscribe to a special plan, ISPs will be better able to support the increased traffic, and developing companies will still be able to reach for success in the digital age.

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