November 5, 2009, 9:45 am
The concept of net neutrality is an issue that’s been bandied about for a few years now in the US–among several other political hot potatoes you have probably heard about.
Being against net neutrality is one of those arguments that on first glance seems reasonable. The power company, after all, charges us more as we consume more electricity–why shouldn’t Internet carriers be allowed to charge based on data load and regulate traffic accordingly?
There’s a lot of reasons why this analogy tends to fail. The most immediate one is that the utility companies have always had this sort of revenue model. There was never the sort of all-you-can-eat model that Internet carriers are using today. Although very early on some Internet providers charged customers based on a tiered data-usage price model, it quickly became the norm to charge not for data flow but for the size of the pipe. Internet carriers can’t charge me more for downloading multiple Linux .iso images, but they can make me pay more if I want to get those images onto my computer faster.
That’s a simple breakdown of the analogy, but the more subtle one is this: the power company creates the electricity they send down the wire to my house, so there’s no question about their right to get paid based on the amount of juice my family uses. The same holds true for the water and gas companies, though they didn’t make the product–they just went out and got it.
But the Internet carriers don’t own the material they’re trafficking, nor did they create it. We do.
Granted, that “we” is a very diverse group: from the media companies to governments to corporations to individuals, data is owned by lots of different entities, or not owned at all, depending on the licenses and copyrights. Even the Internet carriers own some of the data–content they provide for their customers–but not all of it.
This is an important distinction. To continue the analogy, this would be like the water company getting all their water from private wells in everyone’s backyard, then redistributing the water to everyone who needed it, including the owners of the wells. And now they’re asking those well owners to pay for the water they’re taking from the system.
Let’s be clear here: it’s perfectly reasonable for Internet carriers to charge for the infrastructure used to bring the Internet to homes and offices. But to charge on a data-usage model when they didn’t create the data in the first place seems more than a little disingenuous.
How important is the net neutrality issue? Put yourself in a world where you were charged more for the amount of data that comes in and out of your system. Now imagine how free and open Linux development would occur in such a world.
Pretty daunting, wouldn’t you say?
To get an even better idea of how important an Open Internet is, take a look at this video from Jesse Dylan from FreeForm. It will remind you how many things we owe to this notion of net neutrality.