20 January 2007

A Confederacy of Dunces

It's amazing how dim clever people can be. Here's a piece in the Washington Post from some apparently clever chaps about net neutrality. But listen to this:

Blocking premium pricing in the name of neutrality might have the unintended effect of blocking the premium services from which customers would benefit. No one would propose that the U.S. Postal Service be prohibited from offering Express Mail because a "fast lane" mail service is "undemocratic." Yet some current proposals would do exactly this for Internet services.

Metaphors are so seductive because they can be grasped more easily than the matter to hand. But they are dangerous because of the potential imperfection of the comparison. In this case, there is a fatal flaw in the metaphor: net neutrality is not about blocking "fast lane" postal services. Proponents of net neutrality have pointed out time and again that anyone is welcome to buy faster Net connections if they need them.

The real comparison is if a postal service were offered that guaranteed faster delivery for letters that contained a particular kind of content. This would act as a barrier to someone "inventing" new kinds of content for letters. Net neutrality is about ensuring that the playing-field is level for everyone - that anyone can invent new kinds of content, so that users can then decide which to use without other biases coming into play. It is not about blocking generic "fast lane" services.

The point is that even if there are cases that could be pointed to where priority might seem be beneficial, the overall impact is negative: once you start giving network providers the power to discriminate, they will - and not in the ways that will be good for the network. If priority is needed, it should be provided - and paid for - on a generic basis.

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