Over at CircleID, Geoff Huston has a long’ish article on Title II regulation of the Internet, and the ideals of “net neutrality.” The reasoning is tight and strong — his conclusion a simple one:
At its heart, the Internet access business really is a common carrier business. So my advice to the FCC is to take a deep breath, and simply say so.
Who am I to quibble with Geoff’s conclusion? Well, nobody, really, but still…
Let’s begin here: why should I care? I’m just a console jockey, or an IT director, or… I don’t really care about all this Internet governance stuff, and the politics behind it all, and… Because you should, that’s why. Because it will impact the way you build and consume services for the rest of your career. Because it will impact the larger social view of technology. Because — just because. With that said, I’m going to quibble, at least a little bit.
My main problem with the entire field of “net neutrality” is it makes a single simplifying assumption: it’s inherently possible to separate access from content, and somehow charge separately for each one. Particularly in a world that is increasingly centralizing compute and storage (whether right or wrong — a good topic for another post), it’s impossible to separate the two in the way regulators would like. There’s no “bright line” between the cost of transporting data and the cost of producing it. At lower transmission costs, more information will be produced
(Remember when cable television came along? We went from having three channels of nothing to watch to thousands. More content doesn’t necessarily mean more quality, it just means more content).
This relates to a simple fact that has been true for a number of years. The telephone companies discovered it years ago, the cable companies have discovered it, the big “Internet core service providers” have discovered it, but regulators haven’t.
You can’t make money transporting bits.
There is no — I repeat no! — business model under which you can make money transporting bits. The only way to make money is in producing and selling content.
What does this mean in the network neutrality game? Regulators can’t ever hope to untangle transport from content in a way that allows transport to sustain itself in any realistic way. It’s all nice and good to say, “every transport provider needs to treat every piece of traffic from any content provider equally,” but you immediately run into a brick wall. Those folks providing transport are, in fact, providing content as well.
In fact, there is no such thing as a “pure” transport provider any longer. They all sell services, because selling services is the only way you can actually make money.
None of this is to say I don’t like the idea of network neutrality — to the contrary, I very much like the idea that every content provider should be treated equally over any set of wires or transmission network. We too often make the mistake of saying, “but this kills Quality of Service.” Not really — if every video stream from every provider were treated the same, but every video stream were treated differently from file transfer, then you still have quality of service, and you still have network neutrality.
My quibble is this: how, in the real world, are we going to create a regulatory framework where you can separate that which cannot make money from that which can, and then say, “you must provide equal access to that which doesn’t make money, while continuing to improve it?” Perhaps what’s really needed here is some creative thinking about how these things could, or would, work.
And if we really want network neutrality, we need to rethink our entire centralization spree. Video content originating on an individual customer’s home based server should be treated the same as video hosted on a big commercial service provider. The Internet started as a way to do “any to any,” not as “yet another broadcast service,” where the “big folks” get to tell us “little folks” what’s worth watching or listening too.
In the end, we’re running into a classic Gordian Knot. It’s all too easy to cut the knot, but the result might not be just what we think it should be.