Would 'Real' Network Neutrality Outlaw CDNs?

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It’s a message worth repeating to network neutrality absolutists: Be careful what you wish for.

As the FCC gets ready to release its draft of network neutrality rules Dec. 21, some activists are demanding that the agency’s rules include a ban on “paid prioritization” (see Sources: Some Movement On Paid Prioritization, ISP Definition In Net Neutrality Draft).

But what does that mean?

According to this Dec. 10 letter to the FCC from a coalition of public interest advocates, consumer groups and others led by Free Press, “Paid prioritization is the antithesis of openness.”

The letter continues, “Any framework that does not prohibit such economic discrimination arrangements is not real Net Neutrality. Without a clear ban on such practices, ISPs will move forward with their oft-stated plans to exploit their dominant position and favor their own content and services and those of a few select paying partners through faster delivery, relegating everyone else to the proverbial dirt road.”

The New York Times weighs in on the issue with an editorial Saturday, arguing, “If corporations could pay for faster carriage of their content nothing would stop them from divvying up the broadband capacity, condemning less well-financed sources to move at a snail’s pace.”

The trouble with this position is that, if codified into FCC rules, it would arguably ban content distribution networks — such as those run by Akamai Technologies, Limelight Networks and Level 3 Communications — whose sole purpose is to deliver content more quickly for large-scale content providers that can afford to pay for the privilege. CDNs do this by caching content more closely to last-mile access networks.

So the truth is that “paid prioritization” is already widely practiced: Google, YouTube and Amazon can afford to employ CDNs, while the corner mom-and-pop store can’t.

And outlawing CDNs wouldn’t make the Internet better for everyone else. It will only make it worse for the biggest, most popular websites — and their users.

It may sound democratic to forbid the wealthiest Web content owners to have a “fast lane” on the Internet versus the “dirt road” available to the rest of us, but in practice the (unintended) consequences could be disastrous. It’s an example of the difficulty in translating network neutrality concepts into actual, enforceable rules (see Down In the Weeds of Network Neutrality).

Anyway, if you think banning “paid prioritization” on the Internet is a good idea, why wouldn’t you also support making FedEx illegal, or agitate for the U.S. Postal Service to eliminate Priority Mail?

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