Let the Internet Grow Up

America has developed a proud paternal bond with the Internet.  We’ve watched and cheered the Net’s growth from its awkward, text-heavy infancy into the capable, hard-working information network it has become.  But, like many proud parents of prodigies, we’re so pleased with our creation’s current brilliance that we’re on the verge of stunting its development with overbearing restrictions.  These restrictions, ushered in through innocent-sounding but insidious “Net neutrality” legislation, threaten the Net’s maturation into the powerful technology it ought to be.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Net neutrality regulations would restrict Internet Service Providers (ISPs)—the owners of the Net’s infrastructure—from charging Web content providers for prioritized access.  In the current scheme, all the bits and bytes passing through the Internet’s information gateways are treated equally.  But ISPs envision an Internet where, for a price, Net traffic from some sites could be given preferential treatment—like first-class ticket holders, those paying more would be bumped to the front of the line.  Net neutrality legislation would prohibit such first-class treatment, enforcing a Net perpetually stuck in cramped coach seats. 


The underlying idea is a common one among couriers of physical property: Larger loads and faster service entail higher fees.  Think of ISPs as virtual shipping companies.  Instead of physical goods, they deliver information.  And just as physical shipping companies charge more to move larger packages or for quicker delivery, ISPs want to build a tiered business model where the price matches the quality and quantity of service. 


But Net neutrality proponents don’t think ISPs should be allowed to offer such prioritized services.  Gigi B. Sohn, for example, president of the tech-advocacy group Public Knowledge, has complained that “Prioritization is just another word for degrading your competitor.”  But this is hardly the case.  Rather, prioritization allows providers of online services to receive and react to market signals, allowing them to provide better service.


Neutrality regulations also threaten to impede digital property rights. ISPs have invested massive sums in building the communications infrastructures that allow the transmission of information over the Net; neutrality advocates would commandeer these information pipelines from their rightful owners and attempt to force these owners into a mandated business model. 


Neutrality proponents bury their arguments within a mound of rhetoric about consumer choice, but the choice they offer is a stagnant, underdeveloped Internet, robbed of its tremendous potential.  There is a prevailing, misguided notion in their arguments that the Net we have now is the Net we will always have.  It is easy to forget that just over a decade ago, now-common features like Flash animation, web video and Internet telephony were still gleams in their developers’ eyes. 


Currently, the Web is poised to deliver an even wider array of heretofore unavailable, advanced features that would consume enormous amounts of bandwidth.  Prioritized access fees would generate new revenue that could help fund the bandwidth increases that these new services will entail; neutrality advocates want to close off these revenue streams and their attendant market signals.  The consumer choice offered by neutrality advocates refuses to accept a grand buffet of tasty new Net services in favor of the bland familiarity of an Internet no more exciting than a brown bag lunch. 


Many of the Web’s largest content providers are disingenuously lauding neutrality proposals for their alleged consumer-friendly bent.  But the praise offered by companies like Amazon and eBay is designed primarily to insulate them from the delivery costs of the new bandwidth-hungry content they want to develop.  Under the neutrality rules, these companies would get to ship bigger, better, faster content without any concurrent change in price.  Despite their name, these rules are about as neutral as a football game in which one team gets to play wearing rocket boots. 


It’s understandable for Americans to feel protective of the Net.  We’re proud of what it has become, and we’re afraid of what change could bring.  But the Internet is still developing, and Net neutrality laws would hinder that growth.  Instead of relegating the Net to its current, immature state, let’s let dump the idea of neutrality and let the Internet keep growing up.