Why the Net Was Never Really Neutral Anyway ...

... And How Both Sides of the Google-Verizon Debate Are Missing the Point

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
The notion of net neutrality evokes a sense of righteous entitlement whenever anyone vaguely threatens this sacred principle. The mere discussion gets a knee jerk "the net should stay neutral" reaction that rivals what the "live free or die" call probably evoked in its day.

With that type of zealous devotion, the recent Google/ Verizon joint announcement, which outlined their version of a "neutral net," opened the floodgates of criticism that resembled a digital tar and feathering. Article upon article demonized them, with some articles going so far as to say that Google -- once the white knight against the Microsoft evil empire -- had become the evil one to avoid.

How fickle public opinion can be! But more worrisome is how easily this issue has become misused to promote business agendas on both sides of the debate.

The issue, after all the hoopla, boils down to a fairly straightforward proposition.

The pro "net neutrality" position is that the digital information delivery infrastructure is really like a "public utility" so that, like the telephone network where all calls are treated equal, all information should be delivered equally. So whether the information is from a small blog or Amazon, it gets to "Judy Consumer" in the same way.

Sounds good, doesn't it?

But that simplistic understanding (promoted by the net neutrality advocates who have their own agenda) misses a lot.

First, it's wise to remember that any "public asset" becomes a regulated industry, and history has proven time and again that regulation comes at the cost of speed, accessibility and transparency. That's a proven innovation killer -- which net neutrality folks seem eager to ignore. Imagining that a "regulated" equal-access net will spur innovation only makes sense if you understand what the net neutrality folks' agenda is (which I explain later on).

Second, while net neutrality flag-wavers liken the information superhighway to a public asset like the telephone network, they fail to recognize the telephone system was built with tax dollars. In 1913 AT&T agreed to become a regulated monopoly, which in effect meant that while the government would allow this monopoly to continue, it was on the condition that they agree to Federal Communication Commission (FCC) oversight. Not so with the digital information networks. It was funded by private corporations in the hope that they could realize a return on that investment. In essence, we want to claim these networks as a "public asset" even though we didn't actually pay for it.

Hardly the American way, now is it?

This, I believe, is the philosophical point of the Google/Verizon argument. They accept that the critical nature of the internet means everyone needs to be able to get digital information, but without any accommodations, they are not able to get a return on their significant investment. They advocate a structure where content providers can pay them a fee so that their content and information is delivered faster to customers. This is not evil; this is reasonable business practice.

Once both sides of the argument are clear in our minds, it becomes easy to see why the likes of Facebook would be so pro-net neutral, anti-Google/Verizon. Imagine if they had to pay for speedy delivery of all those friend updates as old updates are not as valued as "near real time" ones. Facebook kinda got to build its empire on some else's dime -- see?

Bottom line: Uncharacteristically, I have no strong opinion on either side, because frankly, neither choice is wonderful -- big government vs. big company. I hope that smarter heads than mine are wrestling through this. But one thing I know for sure. It would help if we accept that the net was really never neutral to begin with and we should lose the sanctimonious "net neutrality is sacred" rhetoric.

If we move past the indignation, we can begin intelligent and thoughtful conversation. Judy Consumer deserves no less.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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