There's been lots of discussion of network neutrality regarding Internet access lately. I have heard a lot of rhetoric about this, most of which seems to rely on things I know not to be true, so I wanted to write down my own current thoughts on the issues. Hopefully people can correct me when I make my inevitable errors.
One point that seems obvious but which might bear repeating is that everyone with a network connection pays for it. An obvious example is that I pay my cable company every month for my ability to access the Internet, but what seems to not necessarily be understood is that any organization out there with a website is itself either directly or indirectly paying for its access also. Since I'm just me and only need enough Internet connectivity to send my email, do my web browsing, and take care of my other fairly basic needs, I don't need that much bandwidth; Cox lets me download information at a rate of up to 4-5 megabits per second. On the other hand a really big site might have multiple 155.52 Mbit/sec connections to handle all the incoming and outgoing network traffic, and they would pay a pretty penny to their own Internet service provider for that service.
Network neutrality means that when I try to access a site, or use a particular service (like instant messaging, or sending email, or using an Internet telephony service like Skype) my ISP handles my requests like any other request. That doesn't mean that I'll be able to access all websites equally quickly -- there may be network problems, or the sites may have purchased different amounts of bandwidth from their own ISPs -- but my ISP is supposed to do the best it can and not give preference to network connections to one site over another.
Why would it want to discriminate? It is pretty easy to think of some nefarious reasons for doing so -- for instance many ISPs also provide phone service and may have reason to wish that Internet telephony would die a quiet death -- but there are also more legitimate reasons.
The argument I've heard from the ISPs is that they have been giving big, popular websites like Google and Amazon a free ride. In a way that's not true -- Google and Amazon are, as I said before, paying for their Internet access just like anyone else. But there's also a grain of truth of it.
Think of spam. Ignoring for a moment the more nefarious kinds of spamming, which involve sending mail using hacked computers, spammers send mail using bandwidth they've paid for. But they also inflict additional costs on the recipient servers -- the vast majority of mail received by American On Line's mail servers is spam, for instance, and they have had to invest in additional mail servers and, quite possibly, additional bandwidth to accommodate that huge influx of spam. (Some of the antispam schemes involve trying to get the spammers to pay part or all of the money required to handle their traffic.) AOL can't get the money for this additional infrastructure from the spammers, so it has to get it from its users. Ultimately this could result in lost business for them.
There's an obvious difference between a spamhouse and Google in that users actually want Google's services whereas most would be just as happy if all spammers fell into a hole in the ground and disappeared, but in terms of the cost to the ISP on the receiving end of the data and the potential consequences thereof the analogy is still there -- Google and Amazon are paying to send their information, but it's up to the consumer (or the consumer's ISP) to pay to receive it. The ISPs see all the money that Google and Amazon are making and think, hey, they're making that money using our bandwidth! Some of that money is rightfully ours! And further they say: if we could charge sites like that extra money, that would give us incentives to make some really kickass high-bandwidth pipes to access them! That would be good for everyone!
That's more or less the case for doing away from network neutrality as I understand it.
OK. The logical question is why, then, I am opposed to getting rid of network neutrality.
It seems wrong that my ability to access Livejournal (say) would depend on some side-deal made between Cox and Six Apart. I feel like I've already paid Cox to give me access to Livejournal (among other sites obviously), and I've paid Six Apart to let me do stuff on Livejournal, and so what else should be needed, really? Perhaps this is too much of a knee-jerk reaction to be taken seriously, though.
It seems like the system would be complicated. Would a content provider have to make a separate deal with every little ISP to give its content the desired kind of priority? If not, wouldn't that result in a bandwidth cartel that is able to set prices to get premium access to its users as it liked?
There is already a problem with websites that are destroyed by their own success; you've got your cute little site that sells whatever, and people start to notice your site and think it's cool, and more and more people start to visit it until -- boom! -- you run out of bandwidth and either have to shut down or find the money somewhere to pay for more. Getting rid of network neutrality seems like it would just exacerbate that problem -- it would be another barrier to entry for small sites just starting out.
Your comments, as always, are welcomed.