Network neutrality advocates have been preening and cooing since the election as they expect the Obama FCC and the new Democratic Party-dominated Congress to enact new laws and regulations advancing their pet cause. They got some support today from an unexpected quarter when the Cato Institute published a paper by graduate student Tim Lee echoing and supporting their main argument:
An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.
Tim Lee, bless his heart, is wrong about the importance of the Internet’s end-to-end architecture. While the Internet, along with all other computer-based networks, certainly does have such an architecture, it’s not the only architecture or even the most important one in the mix. The most important part of the Internet is its “network-to-network” architecture, because that’s the part that makes it what it is. The Internet is only an internet because network operators have agreed to exchange traffic with each other according to terms that they develop among themselves without government interference. This exchange of traffic is what makes it an interesting place.
Internetwork packet exchange is not as simplistic as network neutrality advocates make it out to be. Network operators do not simply forward packets first-come-first-served to anybody and everybody for the end-to-end layer to sort out; they discriminate in all sorts of ways to provide good service to as many people as possible at a reasonable price. Some network operators offer different tiers of service to different customers, and exchange traffic with other networks accordingly. This is good, but it’s not the “stupid network” that our regulators want to see.
Network neutrality is an attempt to shackle the Internet with regulations that mirror a failed model of network architecture, to give a victory to a failed vision by government fiat that it could not achieve in the market. The government should not be picking winners and losers in the competition among network architectures.
Even if you don’t accept that argument, there’s another reason that the proposed regulations should be rejected: the Internet is a technology, and technologies can always be expected to improve over time as parts to build them become cheaper and faster. Net neutrality is a backward-looking agenda that seeks to freeze the Internet core at a particular level of technology. This can only have the effect of hastening its obsolescence, and make no mistake about it, it will be obsolete some day. Nostalgia has no place in technology regulation.
Indeed, Tim’s argument against net neutrality regulations is weak and non-specific. It’s a good reminder that advocates only make arguments about unintended consequences, slippery slopes, and camel’s noses when they’ve lost the argument.
Any attempt to add new regulations to the Internet should be examined from a bias against regulation. If a case can be made that new regulations will make things better, well and good. But arguments about restoring a once golden status quo should be rejected out of hand as incoherent and reactionary.