The U.S. Department of Justice yesterday issued a press release describing its position on “net neutrality”–it’s against it–in response to an FCC Notice of Inquiry into broadband practices. The money quote:
[P]recluding broadband providers from charging content and application providers directly for faster or more reliable service “could shift the entire burden of implementing costly network expansions and improvements onto consumers.” If the average consumer is unwilling or unable to pay more for broadband Internet access, the result could be to reduce or delay critical network expansion and improvement.
The DOJ cited the “common and often efficient” practice of “differentiating service levels and pricing,” pointing to the U.S. Postal Service’s range of package delivey services and prices.
The problem for advocates of net neutrality is explaining why it is important, against a backdrop of pricing and service differentials in air travel, cable television access, HOV lanes, etc., that all Internet traffic be treated the same. I’ve discussed net neutrality many times in class and students often don’t understand the fuss. They say “I can take the Acela or the regular Amtrak train from Boston to New York; the Acela is faster and costs more. What’s the big deal about paying more to deliver or receive content more quickly/reliably?” Compounding their lack of comprehension is that after decades of taking the position that government should leave the Internet alone, net neutrality advocates want Congress to mandate that the Internet’s content- and price-neutral processing of data be fixed by law. They don’t understand why laissez-faire is now undesirable.
What gets lost is that the Internet became what it is precisely because it’s original architecture treats all information the same, whether it is the cure to cancer, Paris Hilton’s shopping list, or pictures of my sore toe. The Internet exploded into public consciousness and practical importance because anyone can connect to it without permission, publish content with little or no barrier (let’s leave China and Saudi Arabia out of this for the moment), and access everything that is available online on the same footing as everyone else. Differential service and pricing threaten to change the ground from which the Internet grew. When it costs $.41 to send a one-ounce letter by first-class mail, $4.60 to send it by priority mail, and $14.15 to sent it by express mail it’s a losing argument to oppose a tiered Internet because one might have to pay more to acquire downloads of Heroes from NBC. Net neutrality advocates must providing succinct and compelling policy reasons for its preservation.