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Net Neutrality: dangerous nonsense

Few things annoy me as much as preachy celebrities working for a cause. Whether it's Paul McCartney looking weepy over a baby seal, Pamela Anderson fretting about chickens, or George Clooney shilling for poor John Kerry, I'm much less likely to support a cause if some overpaid nitwit endorses it than if they stuck to what they're good at. I mean, why should I listen to them for advice?

So when I saw the picture of Moby on the front of this week's Ottawa Citizen 'Tech' section -- photographed from below, looking defiant and staring into the distance -- I knew what he was advocating would be complete horseshit. And it is -- it's 'net neutrality'.

The central premise behind this new cause célèbre is: Boy, isn't the internet getting busy? Seems like everyone is downloading videos and game demos and music. Maybe we could run out of bandwidth! And then what would happen? Maybe the ISPs could start charging the big content providers to give them priority! They have that technology! And that would destroy all the little content providers, leaving the world at the mercy of... (No! Say it's not true!)... Big Business.

Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this terrible vision of the internet to come from an article in the New Republic titled (very neutrally) 'The Bush administration prepares to wreck the Internet':

Imagine you were choosing whether to buy a book from or Barnes and Noble's website, and you knew that Amazon's site would load much faster, allowing you to scan books and sample their content much more easily. Or imagine that's streaming video came up instantly and's balked. Or that loaded quickly while the site of a contentious political magazine was plagued by delays. That is what your Internet experience could be like if Congress doesn't require the big cable and telephone companies that control access to the Web to observe what is called "net neutrality."
Reality check. There is no bandwidth shortage. So much fibre was laid down by the (now bankrupt) telco startups during the dot-com boom that there is still a glut of long distance transport. And new WDM (wave division multiplexing) technologies allow more traffic on a single piece of fibre than was ever imagined before. And on the routing side, routers are cheaper, more powerful, and more reliable than ever. Because of the way internet traffic is distributed, if there are any areas of congestion they can be quickly relieved by added new hardware.

Secondly, no one is doing this now -- or at least no one is doing it in the way the fantasists in the above article are suggesting. They want to legislate against an abuse that is only hypothetical! But in so doing, they will destroy many benefits that tiered internet traffic might bring.

Internet providers are being squeezed by competition. Most markets in the US and Canada are served by many ISPs, so consumers have a choice in where to invest their high-speed dollars. It would be foolish if the ISPs didn't look at both sides of their traffic to try to generate revenue. Who might pay for a guaranteed speed on the delivery of their data? Companies providing subscription financial information would. For example, Bloomberg receives a great deal of money from financial services companies for their data. In delivering this data, milliseconds count. As well, a company that provides video conferencing services needs a guaranteed level of service to keep their customers happy. They don't want to lose connections when the newest Paris Hilton video becomes available. New business oportunities become possible with tiered service. A multinational company might exchange their global telephone network with a Voice over IP (VoIP) system -- but only if they could count on their IP service remaining consistent.

The net neutrality people want all bits to be the same. Seriously, that's the legislative goal of these deluded folks. They want it to be against the law for an ISP to prioritize data. But all bits aren't the same. Some are more important than others and people are willing to pay to ensure that they get there on time. And you know what? The big spenders will wind up subsidizing the regular users. Internet access will be cheaper because of the premiums paid by these 'elite' data streams. Imagine the effect of a law that made first class airline travel illegal -- say, because it's 'not fair' and the airlines might fill the planes with first class seats only. Would it improve prices and service? I doubt it.

The internet has grown to be the absurdly wonderful thing it is because of competition and the minimal intrusion of government. Strangling the companies that provide this service (and very cheaply, I might add) to ration an unlimited and man-made resource to prevent a hypothetical abuse is ridiculous. Even worse though, is that it will prevent IP services we can't even imagine yet from being developed. Equal rights for bits is possibly the dumbest cause the left has come up with yet.

UPDATE: Reason has more on the silliness of this cause.


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