Saturday, February 18, 2006

Network neutrality: Three Simple Questions...

The term "network neutrality" refers to the concept that telcos, cable providers, and other carriers should not inspect, filter, delay or otherwise discriminate against Internet traffic. That's how the Internet works today. And it may not be how the Internet works tomorrow, if the carriers get their way.

BellSouth, for example, has argued against regulations that would guarantee network neutrality:

"What BellSouth is talking about in the context of net neutrality is bigger, better, faster internet -- the internet of the future," said Bennett Ross, general counsel for BellSouth's Washington office. "We see there are only two really principals and questions that have to be addressed. ... Namely is this an area which the government should regulate? And if the government is going to regulate what are those regulations going to look like?"

Bigger, faster, and better? Wow! Who wouldn't want that?

Well, technology companies and civil libertarians for starters. They contend that the carriers are up to no good and they provide some alarming scenarios. The Nation's Jeff Chester, for instance, wrote:

...[the] largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.

So who's right? Are the carriers doing what's best for us? Or for them?

Three Simple Questions

Cisco is pitching new and ominous hardware that can help filter, monitor, and control packet flow for carriers. Because of this, I have crafted three simple questions that the carriers should be required to answer before they are permitted to violate network neutrality. They are as follows:

The number 1Will you use deep packet inspection to analyze and/or meter customer behavior?

The number 2Will you offer tiered (e.g., "gold", "silver", and "bronze") Internet packages to customers otherwise operating at the same bandwidth?

The number 3Will you monitor and/or block voice-over-IP (VoIP), peer-to-peer file transfers, or any other class of communication by customers?

I believe the carriers should be forced to answer these three questions honestly and directly.

If any of these questions are answered affirmatively, the carriers should be regulated accordingly. If the carriers refuse to answer, they should likewise be regulated.

Either way, it's a Losing Strategy

In the unlikely event that the carriers do kill off network neutrality, it's still a profoundly weak strategy for their businesses. As I pointed out a few days ago, a wide range of technological solutions exist to defy packet inspection and filtering. These solutions will continue to evolve; we can expect them to be incorporated into default installations of Internet clients (e.g., the Firefox browser) to make them easier for the general public to use.

The bottom line is that either outcome is bad business for the carriers. The concept that appears to be foreign to the telcos and cable companies is simple: add value, don't subtract it.

Click here to send a message to the carriers and Congress. Network neutrality is a fundamental principle of a successful Internet. And there's no arguing that.

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