The debate over “Net neutrality” has heated up immensely over the past few weeks. Why the hubbub? Broadband service providers — mainly telephone and cable companies — want to charge some heavy-use sites such as Google and Yahoo more money for carriage on their systems, creating a kind of two-tier Internet.
The issue has pitted companies such as Amazon, eBay and Google against broadband providers such as AT&T and Verizon, with the latter using its lobbying muscle to help defeat a Net neutrality proposal in the House of Representatives. But the Senate bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would bar Internet providers from charging a higher fee to companies such as Google.
So I put the question to you: Should the government regulate Net neutrality? Surprisingly, almost all of you were wary of government intervention, and didn’t trust the government to do the right thing here. But before I get to your thoughtful answers, I want to share some expert opinions on the subject, which were a bit more varied.
Declan McCullagh (pictured above), who has been covering this story like a blanket for CNET News.com for some weeks, told me the concept of Net neutrality sounds good on the surface. But he doesn’t think we should give the FCC unchecked power to regulate the Net. And McCullagh thinks that Net neutrality legislation could actually backfire and hurt consumers by stifling innovation.
“If it’s actually true that Verizon and AT&T and so on can only afford to build faster networks (an expensive task) if they can install and auction off a second high-speed pipe for video, well, legally prohibiting that practice may not be the best thing for consumers,” he said via email. “So I guess my position is a moderate one: Wait until there’s a problem before rushing to regulate. If Web sites are blocked or videos are undelivered or Internet phoning is prevented, then let’s start having a serious conversation about what to do.”
Not a bad middle ground. Mike Masnick (pictured here), who writes the fabulously snarky TechDirt blog, told me that this wasn’t such a simple issue, and that soundbites wouldn’t do it justice. He noted that broadband was basically a “duopoly” at the moment, with the dominance of cable and telcos — at least until broadband wireless service becomes more widespread.
“I think that until such time as there is a real alternative, it does make sense for the government to either enforce line sharing rules (which would effectively negate Net neutrality by creating competition), or they should be willing to require some sort of ‘equal rights’ aspect for tiered services,” Masnick said via email. “That is, if a telco offers a tier with a higher quality of service, they should not be able to block any competing services from using that same tier as well. This is a reasonable condition as a tradeoff for the rights of way that the government has granted the telcos that give them this natural monopoly.”
In other words, the broadband providers need to do more to allow other service providers to use their pipes in a competitive way — something they’ve been loathe to do so far. Longtime tech pundit John Dvorak largely agreed with Masnick, and thinks the free-market argument doesn’t hold water.
“The slowness of improvement by market forces in today’s Internet Age is simply too slow in a global competitive environment and needs government mandates just to keep up with countries that are already far beyond us in bandwidth and connectivity,” Dvorak said via email. “We are falling behind by the minute. The idea that the government should stay out of this market is a sort of idealized capitalist absolutism that we simply cannot afford. And we can’t wait around too long either. The government has to act and both open the pipes and also make sure that nobody cheats the public [by shutting out competing services].”
But MediaShift readers were wary of letting the government step in to regulate the broadband services. In the fight to see who we trust less, government seems to have won here.
“I find it interesting that Google and the rest are among those fighting legislation, while simultaneously making the case that only the big companies will benefit from tiered service,” wrote one reader under the name LessGov. “The last thing we need is for government to step into this issue and represent, well, whatever interest elects to pay them. The free market has been able to sort out petty squabbles between giant corporations in the past, and it will do so again without governmental involvement.”
Other people, who wrote anonymously, seemed to be making the argument for the ISPs (Internet service providers) having the right to do what they want with their own pipes. “If an ISP interfered with my surfing, or downloading, or file sharing, wouldn’t I just find a new ISP?” asked Paulaner01.
“If you look at this issue from the simple perspective of property rights, I don’t see how anyone could argue for Net neutrality,” wrote pkp646. “The owners of the pipes should decide how to charge people to use them. If it is in their interest to spend more to develop a greater infrastructure, then I think it is clear that they should be allowed to charge more for content providers to use it. End of story.”
One reader posting under the name “Hairy,” said he/she would actually not mind paying for the video clips they watch online if it would improve their quality.
“I would not mind paying a small, small fee for video clips on broadband, and here is why: so much that is currently out is (to me) simply frivolous. So, when I see something that may be of interest (to me), I would pay for it; but, only if that is what it would take to keep the ‘fat pipes’ open.”
Carly, who blogs at Fortune Cookies & Other Great Things, was torn over the idea of government intervention, but was leaning toward accepting it in this case.
“Normally I’m against government regulating the Web, but I think we may need them to this time,” she wrote. “The problem is I really don’t trust them to do what’s right in the end. I think whoever pays them the most will win. While I almost buy the argument from the ISPs, [the two-tier system] still seems like a terrible idea. It will stifle innovation, because unless you are already a big player with money — your site will never be as fast as Google or someone already paying.”
It seems that most of us agree that the idea of Net neutrality is a good thing, but that government intervention could well be a bad thing. We don’t trust our government or the FCC, nor do we trust the broadband providers. Maybe as McCullagh argues, we shouldn’t do anything quite yet. Or perhaps Congress can actually come to some compromise solution that gives the FCC some power but not absolute power to regulate the situation as it unfolds.
Share your opinion in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to return to this subject in the weeks and months ahead.