News

Keep the Web’s Lanes Clear

10/03/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Last week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski said the agency plans to strengthen enforcement of its current four network neutrality guidelines. Additionally, it will press to add the controversial “fifth” guideline that would prohibit Internet-service providers from applying any network or bandwidth management techniques to improve the quality of Internet services and applications as they cross the network.

Given what the Internet has become, if starting from scratch, no engineer in his right mind would design the network as neutral, or “best effort,” as it is known in programming circles. Although world-spanning corporate networks use the same transmission protocol as the public Internet, these networks are not neutral.

Data networks are designed to manage and partition bandwidth to make sure mission-critical data gets priority. That’s because business depends on it.

I just spent three days at a major security technology conference where hundreds of extremely bright people were trying to deal with the network bandwidth and management problems the growing amount of surveillance video places on enterprise networks. Suggesting these companies adopt network neutrality as a solution would get you laughed out of the room. Yet that’s exactly what the FCC commissioner wants to impose on us.

Until now, Genachowski has kept his opinions on network neutrality close to the vest. Frankly, since he is an Internet entrepreneur, I would have thought he would have taken a less aggressive regulatory approach, especially to an idea that risks so many unintended consequences. Plus, many of the companies that a few years ago had been pressing for net neutrality have backed off.

These include Microsoft, eBay, Amazon.com, and even Google (which on a certain level realizes that its growth depends on the broadband investment that net neutrality would disincent).

The network-neutrality issue has dwindled to a political agenda supported by a handful of vocal advocates at Moveon.org and Freepress.org. And while these groups may have good intentions behind their support for Internet regulation, the neutrality rules they favor will not result in what they hope for.

Quite the contrary, network-neutrality rules will lead to higher broadband prices and mediocre service, and cede a lot of market power to one segment of the market.

To sum things up, think of your community pool on a hot summer weekend. It’s crowded with kids and families swimming, playing and splashing every which way, all having a good time.

Yet even as all this is allowed, most pools keep a lane open for men and women who simply want to enjoy a nice swim, something they couldn’t do without a simple partition of rope and floats. Nobody minds, yet those who come for fun, and those who come for exercise, all get to enjoy the water.

The Internet is a fun place to play, and no one wants to interfere with that. But it’s also a place where minority voices can be heard, diversity can be encouraged, and business can be done.

The Internet needs an adult-swim lane. Don’t let the FCC close it.

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