What Matters in Net Neutrality

By Jonathan Zittrain

Posted on August 12, 2010


The following post is re-published on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Jonathan Zittrain. Originally published 8/9/10.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Google/Verizon deal since until earlier today both companies have denied that there is one. And it’s hard to argue about net neutrality because it means so many different things to different people. I’ve got lots of reading to do to catch up on the newly released set of principles from the companies, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts on the topic.

The core question is this: when Internet Service Providers turn out to have captive audiences of subscribers — either because their customers have few if any alternatives for broadband, or because switching is complicated and cumbersome, or because ISP practices are obscure and thus hard for customers to adapt to — how far should they be allowed to leverage that captivity?

That question arises in the midst of a very confused economy for the movement of bits over the Internet.  With telephones the baseline rule was simple: sender pays.  On the Internet, it’s more complicated: both sender and receiver pay their respective Internet Service Providers to move their data traffic.  Now, suppose these are large ISPs who are considering connecting to each other directly.  The ISP who hosts a sender of traffic like YouTube might say to the ISP with lots of individual users who watch YouTube videos: “We seem to have a lot of stuff that your users want, and they’re paying you to get it to them.  What will you pay us to pass this stuff efficiently over to you?”  The ISP with the individual users might reply with a different point of view: “You’ve got a lot of stuff you want to send to our users, and your corporate customer is making money through advertising or subscription fees when our users access it. What will you and your corporate subscriber pay us to be able to reach our captive audience?”  It’s an odd puzzle: both sides benefit from the transaction, so who should pay for it, given that there’s no baseline rule like “sender pays”?

In the past this dilemma between large ISPs has been resolved through peering arrangements that have amounted to simple handshakes: I’ll carry your traffic aimed at my subscribers if you carry mine aimed for yours, and we’ll call it even.  Today those deals are more complicated, and their details are typically trade secrets.  But we know this much: Verizon, like other broadband providers, already says to its customers: pay us more and we’ll give you faster Internet access.  That’s not controversial.  So should Verizon also be able to make a similar offer in the other direction, to faraway upstream content providers?  Verizon could say to Google: regardless of what you pay your own ISP to get your bits launched on the Internet, pay us more and we’ll make sure your YouTube videos get to our subscribers all the more quickly as they come in for a landing.

Google might well be able to pay — and then leave poorer content providers behind.  The next two guys who want to start, say, ShmouTube won’t be able to do it if they’ve got to negotiate business development deals with one ISP after another in order to reach those ISPs’ subscribers.  And that’s the real danger: when each ISP can, in effect, speak on behalf of its unwitting subscribers, serving as the troll under the bridge offering up different conditions for access to them, the economics of the Net will start to favor the consolidated, the well-connected, the well-heeled.  Verizon and Google each have reason to take the trouble to negotiate with one another to begin with — they’re both big, and each can offer uniquely desirable benefits to the other.  The generative power of the Internet is that it has offered a perch for anyone who wants to plant a flag in the ground.  Set up www.mynewamazingwebsite.com, and people the world over can beat a path to it or not as they please.  That represented a huge change from the proprietary consumer networks of the 1980s and 90s, where AOL or CompuServe got to say who could have a presence within their gated communities.

It may turn out to be too simple to have a blanket rule against ISPs charging faraway providers for access.  There are even some outcomes that make that desirable for consumers — imagine if Internet access were free, with ISPs beating down your door to provide you with broadband, because if you choose them then they’ll get paid by Google et al. for the privilege of sending bits (and ads) to you.  That’s a dubious outcome for a number of reasons, but it’s theoretically possible.  But much more dangerous is if ISPs get to pick and choose: one deal for Google, another for the New York Times, a third for eBay, and no deal at all for mynewamazingwebsite.  In a medium in which so many of the giants were yesterday’s scrappy upstarts — eBay, Google, even the Web itself — it would be a travesty to freeze out the next round of innovation from odd corners by deploying an impenetrable web of contracts and fees.  That’s what I take to be at the core of Chairman Genachowski’s comment that “Any outcome, any deal that doesn’t preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet for consumers and entrepreneurs will be unacceptable.”

Original post from The Future of the Internet Blog.



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