Net Neutrality: Is the Web just a super-television?

Do our metaphors for debating net neutrality leave enough room to discuss the original Web, which was glorified as a venue in which anyone could create, develop, and publish? Will concerns related to the management of an Internet of high-bandwidth video, applications, and data-driven services crowd out the ecosystem that sustains the still-vibrant “old” Internet and its “killer app,” the traditional World Wide Web of sites and “pages”?

Are the Internet and the Web a super-television, a super-telephone… or perhaps more of a super-printing-plant combined with a super-post-office? These questions of metaphor lie behind so many of the disconnects in the “net neutrality” argument, including those over whether FCC action under the Communications Act would be regulation or deregulation of the Internet.

If the focus is narrowly on the access of large-scale high-bandwidth content sources — the Google/YouTubes, Apple iTunes, and Netflixes of the world — to the “last-mile” pipes, then the arguments in favor of throttling, discriminatory pricing, and even “exclusive” access can seem logical as network-management efforts to extract fair compensation for delivering premium content to customers. In a lot of ways this is basically the logic of cable TV: The Internet “big boys” are the channels, and while a “channel” here has evolved into a service or platform that has dynamic, multi-way functionality (and user-generated content), it has come full circle back to a negotiation between a handful of producers who offer bundles of content (or, now, online services) that they own and control into “channels,” and the cable providers who control the pipes that can place those channels in front of consumers. From a view constrained to the “big boy” sites versus the last-mile (read, cable) providers, network neutrality then becomes nothing more than an argument over how to divvy the spoils — and of whether the broadband providers should have their “hands tied” in negotiating for a big enough piece of the pie with the big content and service companies.

And those “big boys” are big. As recounted in Wired this June:

Craig Labowitz made this point last month, when he testified before a Congressional committee on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. Ten years ago, internet traffic was “broadly distributed across thousands of companies,” Labovitz said in his prepared statement to the committee. But by 2009, half of all internet traffic originated in less than 150 large content and content-distribution companies, and today, half of the internet’s traffic comes from just 30 outfits, including Google, Facebook, and Netflix.

But this isn’t “The Internet” as many of us remember it. A cable-TV-like landscape of big content curators vying with big network owners is almost the antithesis of the wide-open, do-it-yourself, “information wants to be free,” Internet and Web of the halcyon 1990s. Many network-neutrality arguments, such as hope of enshrining the “end-to-end” engineering principle into regulatory law, can take on an almost sacred air when coming from those (and there are many librarians among us) who remember the early days of the Web, before even the first wave of dot-com commercialization (not to mention all that has followed it). There’s a lot of nostalgia in the net neutrality “movement” — for our old mental model of the Internet backbone and end-to-end engineering, but also for the more decentralized and heterogeneous distribution of who created and fielded traffic online.

The actual Internet is far more complex now than the old mental model of ISPs connected to an abstract and quasi-public backbone, all governed by the end-to-end principle for packet-switched networks. Some journalistic accounts, as well as scholarly accounts by “neutrality” critics, provide useful background on the technical evolution. But, while granting consideration to the complex spiderweb of peering and transit agreements, CDNs, and more, I am strongly sympathetic with most of what passes under the net neutrality banner. But, for a “progressive” movement, it is hard not to notice that there is a lot of reaction and nostalgia in it — nostalgia for a time when the simple mental model of ISPs connected to a vague cloud-like abstraction of a backbone actually was a good fit to reality, to be sure. But also a broader nostalgia for the simpler Internet of the past. Perhaps even for the simpler earlier days of the Web, the original “killer app” itself, when HTML marked up pages and documents, rather than laid out frameworks for mass-market content delivery or for dynamic data-driven applications controlled by the economy’s highest-profile and fastest-growing major corporations. It is worth asking if this is just pure nostalgia, for an Internet that we understood better but which was actually far less powerful and effective than today’s. Is this just the same as nostalgia for those ’60s cars that “everyone” could work on themselves before electronic tuning and controls? Or, rather, are there real values in the “old” Internet that are imperiled by both the technological and the economic relationships within the developing “new” Internet?

Because, beyond nostalgia, there are real questions here for those of us who understand the stake that we have in preserving space for the open, often text-driven, low-barrier-to-entry, “old” Internet. And all of us engaged in the sharing and promotion of public records and legal information do have such a stake. The concentration of power by the broadband providers is a big problem. But so is the concentration of power by the content giants. The massive bandwidth, taking up a significant portion of all Internet traffic, used for video-intensive applications is a challenge all around. While much of it is consumed for entertainment media — the ready and unscheduled point-of-demand availability of which has certainly changed my life for the better — there are also powerful scientific and medical imaging and big-computing applications.

How much sacrifice of the optimal and efficient management of the mass bandwidth required by multi-media and the application-driven Internet is justified in the name of preserving the open ‘neutrality’ of network protocols and practices? What would be the “neutral” way to operate a network in the age of “embedded” CDNs, private backbones, and every other innovation big network powers and big ISPs will use to speed their content? Real Internet governance — and meaningful net neutrality in the sense of promoting a truly open and non-discriminatory network — requires either enhanced competition among or enforced openness by the near-monopoly consumer broadband providers. But it also requires more, and must reflect interests that won’t necessarily be present in a narrow settlement of the issue between the big content and service providers and the big telcos. And while some of the big guys on the content, search, and services side of that line (read, Google) have histories as relatively good Internet citizens (certainly better histories than do the broadband providers!) and display some inclination to look first to “good for the Internet” solutions to technical problems, there are dangers in their sheer size and concentration and they certainly will ultimately not look only to “good for the Internet” solutions.

Much of the early idealism about the Internet gloried in it as a platform in which anyone could be a “publisher” or “producer” with effectively no barrier to entry. That platform remains. But more and more of not only network resources but also policy attention focus on the relationship of big content and application services with big quasi-monopolistic last-mile broadband providers, and of how to divvy up the equities between them. My fear is for the fate of the old “everyone a printer” Internet. The “super-television” model begins to suck up all the bandwidth— not only literally, but metaphorically as well. In thinking of “fast lanes” I worry less about the enshrining or entrenchment of favored providers of high-bandwidth entertainment services against innovative newcomers or the “next killer app” (though these are real concerns), than I wonder about a broader sidelining of an “old” Internet, in which a diversity of creation and participation reflects not only “user generated” content in a social network’s aggregation, but full contributions developed and controlled and developed by a disparate array of creators. This is the ecosystem that is neglected in moving to a more “cable-tv-like” service environment.

(Penny Shima Glanz links here to some of the best accessible accounts of the “net neutrality” issue.)

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  1. Pingback: The Web vs. Apps, Librarians, and Information Freedom

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