Network neutrality: two proposals

In my last post, I argued that the network-neutrality proposal being pushed by the FCC is deliberately vague, and would give the FCC the power to do whatever it feels like. Consequently, to avoid costly litigation, ISPs would find it necessary to treat all packets identically, despite claims that the proposal would not do so.

I framed my post as a response to an open letter to the FCC written by Vint Cerf (often called the “father of the internet”) and others. Yesterday, Cerf (or someone identifying himself as him) wrote me to say:

Your blog offers nothing constructive. Have you a proposition?

Thanks for asking! Yes. I have two proposals. The first one will be no surprise to regular readers of this space, but I suspect that Cerf is not, so I’ll go through that one first.

My first proposal is: let people do what they want. The broadband providers own the wire/fiber; let them use it as they see fit. If they do something stupid, like block access to certain sites, allow the market to punish them accordingly. This proposal is very easy to implement, as it means preserving the status quo.

As I’ve written before, the threat of broadband providers shaking down content providers and blocking their sites if they don’t pay is entirely hypothetical. (The threat of government overreach, on other hand, is not.) No broadband provider is doing this now, and I see the likelihood of anyone doing it in the future as very slim. One reason providers are unlikely to try such a thing is the history of the Comcast incident. Some people suggest that the incident proves that the broadband companies are a danger to the free flow of information. Actually, the incident proves just the opposite. (First of all, Comcast was trying to improve user performance, and was simply doing it in a stupid way, but that’s not the point. The market does not require that participants be angels, which they most certainly are not.) Customers got angry when they found out that Comcast was throttling BitTorrent, and Comcast was forced to back down. The market process worked exactly as it is supposed to.

I don’t personally see the need for more than this, but many people do. Some simply want to extend government control over the internet, but others are in earnest.

For people in the latter category, I have a second suggestion: Use the power of the market to force broadband providers to commit to neutrality. The best way to do this would have been to trademark the term “internet” and not permit a broadband provider to use the term unless they abide by standards from some established body like the IETF. That way, network neutrality could be enacted by that standards body. Its decisions would be unlikely to stifle innovation because (1) it’s an open body, (2) it’s not run by the government, and (3) any future standards for Quality of Service would probably go through that body anyway.

Importantly, any broadband provider would be free to ignore the standard, but then they would be unable to market their product as internet service. In order to make a profit, they would need to convince customers that they were offering something better. If they were blocking sites that refused a shakedown, they would have a hard time making that case. On the other hand, if they were providing a new innovation forbidden by an ossified standards body, they probably could make the case.

It’s much too late to trademark the term “internet” now, but we can still do something similar: Have a standards body offer a network-neutrality seal-of-approval to providers that abide by neutrality. Customers would have to be taught to look for the seal, but I don’t think that would be a problem. If Google and others were to take the money that they are spending to lobby the government and instead spend it to advertise a neutrality seal, I think they would have a very easy time making the sale. (And if they couldn’t, that might just mean that the public doesn’t care about network neutrality.)

The broadband providers would be delighted to cooperate because (1) currently they would all receive the seal, and (2) it would lift the threat of government action.

This model has succeeded in the past. For example, Underwriters Laboratories is a private organization that has been certifying products (mostly electrical) for safety for over a century. No one is required to abide by their standards, but those denied the seal have a hard time selling their products.

So that’s my proposal: let free people do what free people will do, and leave the government out of it.

(Previous post.)

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