Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More on Net Neutrality

Given that I opened the issue up on this blog, here is another piece on net neutrality from Al Franken:
Mobile networks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless would be able to shut off your access to content or applications for any reason. For instance, Verizon could prevent you from accessing Google Maps on your phone, forcing you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it costs money to use and isn't nearly as good. Or a mobile provider with a political agenda could prevent you from downloading an app that connects you with the Obama campaign (or, for that matter, a Tea Party group in your area).
Franken makes an important point, but I am not sure that providers like Verizon would take extreme measures in metering customers on the margin. Limiting what customers can do with the network would reduce the amount of consumer surplus that consumers would get from access to the network. This would, in turn, reduce the amount that Verizon could charge for access. Hence, even though providers want to charge for their own services, they would face a tradeoff if they wanted to shut down the most valuable competing services.

This doesn't perfectly solve the problem of net non-neutrality in the absence of FCC regulation (services that use a lot of network resources -- i.e., streaming video -- would probably be the first targeted for charges), but it suggests that the problem is not as bad as the worst case scenario that people envision.

In case you are wondering, the FCC rules look like a compromise between pure net neutrality and allowing some control of network use on the margin. Especially among net neutrality purists, this has led to some concern:

The companies have said the rules would provide some regulatory certainty. In private, they have acknowledged the proposal could have been much worse. If approved, they “will give some assurances to the companies that are building Web applications — companies like Netflix, Skype and Google — that they will get even treatment on broadband networks,” Ms. Arbogast said.

But a wide swath of public interest groups have lambasted the proposal as “fake net neutrality” and said it was rife with loopholes. One group, Public Knowledge, said that instead of providing clear protections, the F.C.C. “created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation. Consumers deserved better.”

Notably, the rules are watered down for wireless Net providers like AT&T and Verizon, which would be prohibited from blocking Web sites, but not from blocking applications or services unless those applications directly compete with providers’ voice and video products, like Skype.

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