Net Neutrality and the Battle Ahead

Net neutrality is one topic that I’ve not written about before on the blog. There’s been no particular reason to avoid it given how important I view the issue being. But given the wealth of information out there, I do feel that there is so much intelligent and informed commentary already that I’m not convinced I can add a significant amount to the debate. However, given the current battle that continues to rage in the US, it’s as good a time as any to mention it.

The principle of net neutrality in simple terms is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. The concern is that without such a principle, internet service providers could (and would) block certain content and applications by virtue of their ownership of the last mile to consumers – think of throttling of resources for data-hungry services, so that video services such as Netflix become unwatchable, for example.

If you’re looking for a simple explanation, I like Tim Berners-Lee’s description of net neutrality:

“If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level”.

The internet has proved to be such a powerful engine of growth, innovation and creativity precisely because of one decision: to make it an open system. It is crucial that the networks have no power to pick winners for adoption in terms of new technologies and services because the reality is, without a crystal ball, the facts are that in most situations, they would pick the wrong ones.

Distributed and permissionless innovation is a far more powerful foundation for entrepreneurial endeavours that create both jobs and wealth for millions than the alternative, the creation of a closed system controlled by a few gatekeepers. And that’s before we even mention some of the more fundamental rights that are provided by having an open system – free speech and democratic engagement being two that immediately spring to mind.

As Seth Godin wrote earlier this week.

“the core issue here is not whether a big corporation ought to have the freedom to maximise profit by choosing what to feature. No, the key issue is: what happens when users are unable to choose a different middleman?”

It’s been interesting to watch America, who are in a far worse position than the UK around this issue, respond to Obama’s strongly worded statement on keeping the internet open and free a few days ago:-

Unsurprisingly, the big telecoms and communications companies have had a heart attack. Bizarrely, it’s been interpreted as a political left/right argument by some who just don’t seem to get it. Thankfully, many people who do know what they’re talking about in this area continue to blog about it in simple and straightforward terms.

The battle’s far from over after Obama’s intervention last week. But it’s important that we all consider the very real consequences that are on the horizon if the decision goes the wrong way. To quote Julius Genachowski then Chair of the FCC in the US said in 2009, there’s a very real reason why net neutrality is so important:-

“It ís to make sure that, in the 21st century, the garage, the basement, and the dorm room remain places where innovators can not only dream but bring their dreams to life. And no one should be neutral about that.”