An issue near and dear to my heart, indeed. It’s a foolhardy name- we need to call it “net freedom” or something. However, that’s not what this post is about. I’m going to cover the issue as objectively as possible.
First, the entrenched enemy. Companies like Comcast, who own the internet’s basic data transmission infrastructure, are completely justified in their claims that they have the right to use their infrastructure however they please. The people who respond to the net neutrality issue with the knee-jerk “we’ll get the government to make it illegal!” are foolish children having their candy taken from them. Bringing the government to bear on the management of the internet is an incredibly bad idea, firstly because the internet is international. However let’s not ignore the fact that the government will mismanage a medium such as the internet, and how centralized control will not be helpful to the internet anyway. I believe that Comcast is free to do whatever it wants with its own hardware. The rub comes from how Comcast probably has sufficient power to enforce such controls over other companies, possibly from an agreement. This breach of market equilibrium means that Comcast has limited rein to just screw us over. Without that assurance, blatantly screwing your customers is a ticket to bankruptcy. But if those customers have no choice… The problem isn’t Comcast’s right to use its infrastructure, it’s Comcast’s power to oligopolize the industry. Still, there are people who would claim, “alright, then let’s get the government to nail them for anti-trust violations!” While better than trying to directly control Comcast’s business model, it’s still a bad answer.
To give Comcast et al. a little credit which they seem oblivious to, it may well be that metered internet is the best path for the future. With our unlimited model, there is no real penalty for colossal data inefficiency. Sure, the awful file type will take longer to download and eat your hard drive space, and scripts, protocols, or instructions might be horrifyingly inefficient, but there’s no actual fiscal cost. If the internet were metered, then as a web client you are going to expect a certain degree of respect for your bandwidth. Websites arrogantly squandering your bandwidth for ads had better have the services to back it up. Currently we assume that a metered internet will look just like the current internet, just more expensive and charged by the byte. Not necessarily. For most users it will probably be cheaper. And, there may be new systems built in to improve the user experience. For example, you might have a browser master control panel which gives you control every byte you download, and allows you to easily lock out unwanted sites’ data. There would be a strong incentive to create double-layer security and user facility protocols, a default deny data acquisition model, streamlined packet handling, and so on. On a grander scale, older and obsolete file types or programming languages and paradigms will be upgraded and phased out more quickly, giving you more bang for your hardware dollar (and software too).
Much of my audience is probably ready to throw up by now. Just to make this clear- I DO NOT support Comcast and their cohorts in their efforts to strangle the internet. However, I disagree with the alarmists who think that a metered internet is a dead internet. It will be a very different internet, to be sure, but we can be resourceful. Firstly, who says we have to do business with people who are screwing us? And if they oligopolize the industry and give us no choice, then we can do it ourselves. Buy your own fiber optics lines and connect your neighborhood together, then add lines to other places, etc. etc. Comcast isn’t doing anything that is somehow impossible for your average Joe, although they would like you to think so. If you, not Comcast, own your line that connects to a hub which can go anywhere, you can choose to use Comcast’s services or you can contact lines that also choose unlimited service, etc. It might even be totally free. Why not? Open source hardware is not that big a leap. We have options- but if we go and tell Comcast that they don’t actually own their own infrastructure, we’re no better than the people chopping our media with DRM.
Of course it’s more likely to be practical to use wireless connections and navigate by hubs alone rather than having wires running everywhere- and stashing them underground is expensive. Comcast can offer us fast, high-capacity data services while we get our own free internet in other ways, such as each house running its own wifi. You get a hub, other people can tap your bandwidth and you can tap theirs. You can disallow anyone you like, or everyone, wherever or whenever you like. But then don’t expect them to permit you to use theirs. A decentralized internet is an ideal perhaps greater than that of an unlimited data model from a vendor like Comcast. I don’t know what’s going to happen- this is just speculation, although it seems reasonable to me that people want internet, and if they can’t get it for free from companies like Comcast we’ll start seeing inventive solutions to make it happen. If signals can leapfrog wirelessly from house to house to commercial building to house, then that seems like a good possible solution to me. Hey, it might even be an improvement for us not to be dependent on data services or wires. And we may be reaping the data efficiency benefits of limited pipelines between disparate areas. I doubt wireless technology will get powerful enough to broadcast over, say, the Pacific Ocean in the next couple years. So fiber optics lines will probably be the best way to get lots of data around the world, fast. If you don’t need to pay for speed, maybe a circuitous route through many low-signal areas to get to you is good enough. I am optimistic about the outcome, either way. If net neutrality fails, so what? The environment changes, and we bend our intelligences to working out the problems in front of us. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for what we want, since what I’ve been talking about are basically after-the-fact tactics we might employ to the same effect: getting what we want.