Network Utopia

The rhetorical battle for moral high ground in the ‘Net Neutrality debate is reaching a fever pitch, and while the loudest voices – those who foolishly believe neutrality means unfettered access for anyone for any purpose – have marshaled their forces in fearsome array, I fear we all may be losers when the dust settles.
The idea of a tiered system of access strikes this group (let’s call them the Utopians) as particularly odious, and is met with an impassioned argument that such an arrangement would be anti-freedom and anti-free market. Tiered access, the Utopians claim, would squelch innovation and prevent all but the most powerful corporations from creating new technologies.
Evocation of the Corporation is always a nice touch.
Remember the good old days, before those evil Corporations got in the game and spoiled everything? Don’t you wish you could go back to a time when your ISP was the hobby shop across town and you were the envy of your BBS community because you splurged for a 14K modem? I don’t know about you but I want access to fast Internet, I want a superior quality of service, and I am willing to pay a certain price to get it.
Today, I have relatively cheap high speed service and I enjoy it, but I’ve heard others with the same ISP who live in the city report that their service drags interminably during times of peak usage. Why? Bandwidth hogging services like voice over IP and video file sharing soak up available resources.
The idea that high-bandwidth applications should be allowed to function to the detriment of all is silly, but that is apparently what the Utopians want. And they’ve managed to do the populist calculation and win many converts, including some that could rightly be described as powerful corporations; companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, eBay, and have signed on to the Utopian movement known as
A missive from eBay president and CEO Meg Whitman is pretty typical
The former Procter and Gamble exec sounded all the right sales pitch notes, including this moving passage:
“Today’s Internet is an incredible open marketplace for goods, services, information and ideas. We can’t give that up. A two lane system will restrict innovation because start-ups and small companies — the companies that can’t afford the high fees — will be unable to succeed, and we’ll lose out on the jobs, creativity and inspiration that come with them.”
Convincing at first glance, but flawed upon closer examination.
In a free market system innovation is driven by need and the likelihood of return on investment. Under a tiered Internet, innovation will still be possible and will likely be enhanced as it will provide for a system that is based on merit and demand. The Internet will remain available as a test bed for new products, and those that find a ready market will be afforded the opportunity to be promoted. It’s how business operates in the real world.
The idea that a free market means anyone has the right to do whatever they want, whenever they want, is preposterous. In real estate the mantra is location, location, location… and buyers pay dearly for prime location. In my hometown there is a McDonald’s on the main drag, Route 119. Nearby is a pizza and sandwich shop, Pizza Pizzazz, a little less conveniently situated.
The local McDonald’s franchisee pays much higher location and marketing costs than does Pizza Pizzazz, but that doesn’t mean Pizza Pizzazz is denied the opportunity to compete for patrons. Using the Utopian argument, Pizza Pizzazz should be granted the right to move its location – at no cost – adjacent to McDonald’s, since Route 119 is a public thoroughfare. Instead, the free market system encourages Pizza Pizzazz to offer a better quality product. It encourages innovation, and both restaurants thrive under this arrangement.
Now translate that to the Internet and throw out a few sacred cows while you’re at it. Whitman’s idea that “the phone and cable companies [that] now control more than 95% of all Internet access” are going to force us all onto a system that relies on soup cans and string is nonsense. As with management of telecom services and network management today, the “owners” of the network won’t be able to give themselves preferred services, but would have to treat themselves equally with their competitors.
Let market forces do their thing with the Internet as they’ve done with pizza. We’ll all be better for it.