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Net neutrality: a buzzword that's duping us

It's a nightmare scenario: One day, you log on to the Web, and only 20 or 25 Web sites built by brand-name Net companies fire up quickly. Everything else -- all the mom-and-pop sites, all the niche retailers, all the alternative blogs you read -- dribble out onto your screen like it's 1996 all over again.

But this is a nightmare, too: You log on to the Web after work, and nothing seems to be working. That's because the people living in the three other apartments in your building are busy downloading one pirated Blu-ray movie while watching another. Or spammers have taken control of your neighbors' machines and are pumping out millions of e-mails, totally clogging your Internet pipe. You call your ISP and complain. An operator there says, "Sorry, those pirates and spammers have just as much right to the network as you do."

The important debate on net neutrality is perhaps the most misunderstood technology argument of our time. Sure, neutrality is good and discrimination is bad. And of course, it's terrible that companies like Google and Verizon seem to be holding secret meetings that will decide the future of our beloved free Internet. It's a shame that this important debate has been dragged down by sloganeering and extremism.

Here are two important points everyone should understand about this fight:

1. This is not the fight of big companies vs. little people that it has been cast to be. It is big companies vs. other big companies. It's Web content suppliers like Skype and YouTube vs. Web bandwidth suppliers like Comcast and Verizon. You, dear reader, are a pawn.

2. "Net neutrality," as described by its extreme supporters, does not exist today, and that's a good thing. Internet service providers "de-prioritize" certain kinds of traffic already, such as spam or denial of service attacks. And in an even more subtle way, network neutrality cannot exist in the Internet's current architecture. By its nature, the system itself is kinder to some kinds of communication over others. The TCP protocol used to move packet traffic around the Web favors latency-tolerant applications, such as e-mail, over real-time communications, like video chat. That's just the way the technology works.

For regular readers of this column, you know I love a good chance to express outrage at companies like Verizon. There is a lot going on here that smells bad. No one should trust Google and Verizon -- or the other members of the telecom-and-Internet cabal that's been holding secret meetings with the FCC -- to settle this issue in a way that benefits consumers. They will not. This is the real shame of the net neutrality debate. Neither the agency nor those companies have any good will with the American public that would create a trusting enough environment that might enable a sensible debate. I fear this works to the advantage of companies looking to exploit consumers even more for profit.

Back when the general concept of equal access was first applied to the Internet, consumers were happy to push around e-mails and short instant messages to each other. The idea that you might be able to watch full-motion video of a baseball game on a cell phone while driving in a moving car had not yet been imagined. Consumers who watch such video for hours per day have so far expressed outrage any time a bandwidth supplier has tried to cap that usage. That's silly. Is it fair that someone who reads 50 e-mails per day on their phone and nothing more would pay the same as someone who streams a gigabyte's worth of video? Is it fair that your phone might not work for phone calls because 12 other people nearby are watching "Lost"?

On the table is the notion that bandwidth hogs like Google's YouTube might be asked to pay a larger share of costs, at least when delivering content over newer networks like wireless broadband. If YouTube or Major League Baseball paid extra, it would be able to guarantee non-jittery viewing to its cell phone users. On its face, that doesn't sound like such a non-starter, but it does violate the notion of net neutrality.

I get the slippery slope argument. I get fears that allowing such charges could lead us down the road to a two-tiered Internet, with first-class service for a tiny few and coach class for the rest. I understand even more the corporations involved here, if they win the right to charge in tiers, will overpromise and under-deliver. Instead of investing in new, better service, they will just take the money and downgrade most service. And then there's the biggest fear of all: that cable companies will turn the Web into, well, cable. It is possible that Internet-delivered television running over a first-class Internet pipe could lead to marginalization of the rest of the Web.

That's why I'm afraid we are all taking up the wrong fight. The fight should involve the real problem, rather than the buzzwords. It should involve guaranteed minimum service levels, and a real government resource for complaints. (The FCC is awful at directly helping consumers -- just read this column.) It should quickly investigate and fine misbehavior by ISPs, such as throttling service or misleading consumers about available bandwidth. It should protect small-time Internet users while allowing early adopters and early innovators the choice to spend more and get more. Is a proclamation of absolute net neutrality the best road to a fair Internet? I doubt it.

I understand that the cast of characters lining up on the side against net neutrality have a terrible reputation. Groups like "Hands off the Internet" are simply regurgitating buzzwords about less government regulation and more free speech. It's the same crowd that wants to privatize all American highways with the idea that this would remove potholes, when we all know it would just mean higher tolls. I'm not on their side.

More important, if companies like Google and Verizon are allowed to have a lovely private dinner and set telecommunications policy for the rest of the country, we might all be better off moving to Canada.

But some of the net neutrality proposals floated so far would actually make it harder for Internet service providers to filter out Internet traffic that degrades service, such as hacker attacks. And virtually all of them would make a winner out of bandwidth hogs.

I'm not sure how hard consumers should fight to prevent AT&T from charging YouTube more if its users are clogging up Internet pipes. Instead, we should be fighting to make sure AT&T and other ISPs don't give us less, and that requires a more subtle touch than the religious war that's unfolding right now. Network neutrality is much less desirable than enforceable regulation which states that common efficiency practices like "network shaping" are deployed only in the best interest of consumers.

But that would require an FCC that does more than simply act as messenger between the titans of technology as they divide up the big pile of money sitting on the table. Right now, I'm afraid that the battle over buzzwords is distracting us from the real problem, and giving companies an even easier time taking advantage of consumers.

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