Neutrality Was Never a Doctrine of the Internet

Perhaps now that network neutrality legislation appears to be a real threat to the unregulated Internet, more technologists are coming out with warnings about it. What’s tough is that network neutrality, if enacted, will have a profoundly negative effect on how network technology evolves. And when technology enters the discussion, eyes glaze over. Instead, everyone gloms onto the misguided idea that without enforced network neutrality, all of our Internet freedoms are in danger. At last, however, the right questions are being asked. Like how exactly is Internet freedom preserved by prohibiting the development and use of any mechanisms for quality control or application prioritization inside the network? Why is traffic optimization at the network “edge” acceptable, while traffic optimization in the network “core,” is not? True, the Internet Protocol (IP) was developed to work over neutral, dumb pipesââ?¬â??but this was a necessary condition of the time given the limited capabilities of carrier networks, not some underlying doctrine that the first authors of the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), the underlying Internet language, adopted by choice to safeguard an Internet democratic ideal, as the net neutrality side would have us believe. The Internet developers worked with what they had. And at last we’re beginning to hear this from some of those authors (at least those not employed by Google). Here’s Robert Kahn, a co-developer of TCP/IP, speaking at a recent event in his honor at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, as reported The Register, a U.K.-based on-line tech newsletter:

Kahn rejected the term “Net Neutrality,” calling it “a slogan.” He cautioned against dogmatic views of network architecture, saying the need for experimentation at the edges shouldn’t come at the expense of improvements elsewhere in the network…. “If the goal is to encourage people to build new capabilities, then the party that takes the lead is probably only going to have it on their net to start with and it’s not going to be on anyone else’s net. You want to incentivize people to innovate, and they’re going to innovate on their own nets or a few other nets,” “I am totally opposed to mandating that nothing interesting can happen inside the net,” he said. So called “Neutrality” legislation posed more of a danger than fragmentation, he concluded.

Here’s David Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and informally known as the “grandfather of the Internet,” writing with Michael Katz, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, in today’s Washington Post:

The current Internet supports many popular and valuable services. But experts agree that an updated Internet could offer a wide range of new and improved services, including better security against viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks and zombie computers; services that require high levels of reliability, such as medical monitoring; and those that cannot tolerate network delays, such as voice and streaming video. To provide these services, both the architecture of the Internet and the business models through which services are delivered will probably have to change…. Network neutrality is supposed to promote continuing Internet innovation by restricting the ability of network owners to give certain traffic priority based on the content or application being carried or on the sender’s willingness to pay. The problem is that these restrictions would prohibit practices that could increase the value of the Internet for customers. Traffic management is a prime example. When traffic surges beyond the ability of the network to carry it, something is going to be delayed. When choosing what gets delayed, it makes sense to allow a network to favor traffic from, say, a patient’s heart monitor over traffic delivering a music download. It also makes sense to allow network operators to restrict traffic that is downright harmful, such as viruses, worms and spam.

The network neutrality debate is better for their participation. The consequences of network neutrality need to be understoodââ?¬â??legislative lock-in of a network architecture that already could be obsolete. At the same time, those who support quality prohibitions in the network have failed to point to any concrete example where the use of any enhanced quality of serviceââ?¬â??at the edge or in the coreââ?¬â??has violated anyone’s First Amendment rights. What we have here is the most misunderstood technology issue of our time. Kahn and Farber have added much needed clarity.

Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.