In a way, proponents and opponents of network neutrality are both correct! That is, they are each correct about different aspects of the Internet.
Net neutrality is both necessary and workable for what I call Jeffersonet, which comprises the “classical”, bandwidth-light parts of the Internet. Thus, it includes e-mail, instant messaging, much e-commerce, and just about every website created in the first 13 or so years of the Web. Jeffersonet is the greatest tool in human history to communicate research, teaching, news, and political ideas, or to let tiny businesses compete worldwide. Any censorship of Jeffersonet – even if just of the self-interested large-enterprise commercial kind – would be a terrible loss. Net neutrality is workable for Jeffersonet because – well, because it’s already working just fine. Jeffersonet doesn’t need anything beyond current levels of bandwidth and reliability. So there’s no reason to mess with what’s working, other than simple profit-hungry greed.
Network neutrality opponents, however, point to evolving and future technologies, technically more demanding than what the current Internet can well support. Their uses are centered on what I call Edisonet – communication-rich applications such as entertainment, gaming, telephony, telemedicine, teleteaching, or telemeetings of all kinds. Reliable, tiered service is needed for these applications, and somebody has to pay for it. Even so – and this is a key point — the payment scheme should be as favorable to application-developer competition as possible.
If it were not for Edisonet, extreme net neutrality would be fairly harmless. If it were not for the huge public benefits of Jeffersonet, letting the telecom carriers have their way on non-neutral pricing wouldn’t be so bad. But given the presence of both, a middle course is needed. Fortunately, one is available that gives appropriate treatment to Jeffersonet and Edisonet alike, without giving tasks to regulatory agencies that are much different from the kinds they actually do a pretty good job of performing already. Tariff Rebate Passthrough shows the way.
Historical notes on the names: Obviously, Jeffersonet and Edisonet are named after Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison respectively. Jefferson famously opined that newspapers were more important to good government than the institutions of government himself. He also donated the beginning of the collection that became the Library of Congress, founded the University of Virginia, and sponsored the Lewis and Clark expeditions. Today’s Internet – its flaws notwithstanding — would surely fill him with the utmost delight.
Thomas Edison, of course, was a prolific inventor, and heavily involved in founding the whole electric utility industry. He created home and business conveniences and necessities as, ultimately, complete geographically dispersed systems. In some ways, his inventions are most significant for how they have contributed to leisure, from the phonograph to the electric light that let people read easily after their work was done. Today’s Internet would surely delight him too, but he would also be busily focused on future enhancements in entertainment and other areas.