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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Neutral Net? Who Are You Kidding? Net Neutrality: Part X

By Michael Grebb from Wired:
"I don't think the internet has ever been perfectly equal or neutral," says Khaled Nasr, a partner at venture-capital firm InterWest Partners. "There has always been some level of inequality." Seconds Matt Tooley, CTO of broadband optimization firm CableMatrix: "I don't think it's as egalitarian as people would like to think it is."

A dwindling list of corporate giants that control the pipes into consumers' homes are jumping into the video and internet phone businesses, creating an unprecedented threat to online competition, consumer advocates say. In a worst-case scenario, some speculate, a carrier like AT&T might launch its own internet video service and then conspire to hurt the performance of competitors, such as Google, Amazon.com and YouTube, at least where its own customers are concerned.

The debate appears to have polarized into extreme positions. But a hard look at the current situation seems to show that both sides have a point, and the best long-range solution may well be a compromise. Giving the cable firms and telephone companies free rein to do exactly as they wish is almost certainly a mistake. But micromanaging their businesses by forcing them to treat everybody exactly the same would also be a blunder.

Cracking down on ISPs by enforcing one-size-fits-all rules could be costly, since such bandwidth management can have a utilitarian purpose. And it's hard to predict what measures will work best to optimize the network at any given time, or in the future. Cisco Systems' Pepper says that net neutrality in some of its purest forms could even lead to price regulation of broadband services, which could further erode investment and innovation -- the very things that net-neutrality proponents presumably would like to see thrive on the internet. "Regulation is not free," says Pepper. "It always has a cost."

"To say it's never been equal is obvious," says Paul Meisner, vice president of global public policy for Amazon.com and one of the key lobbyists pushing for strong net-neutrality safeguards on Capitol Hill. "But none of those services degrade other services on the internet. The problem arises when schemes are discussed that would prioritize some traffic over other traffic."

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