Ben Hatton A Discussion on Net Neutrality

July 25, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Net neutrality has always been a hotly-debated issue in the tech world, and as our digital lifestyles have evolved over the past several years, the debate has as well. The question of whether or not the Internet should be federally regulated in some way is a point of contention for many, and it was the big question posed at a panel discussion I attended in Indianapolis last month. The TechPoint event brought together 3 experts in the internet services field to discuss the pros and cons of a completely “neutral” Internet vs. one that is regulated by the FCC. The speakers were:

Bret Swanson: President at Entropy Economics.

Darby McCarty: President at Smithville Communications.

Barry Umansky: Telecommunications Professor at Ball State University, and formerly with the FCC. He served as Moderator for the discussion.

Before the panel opened, I already had some knowledge about net neutrality, as well as some opinions about it, but there were still several interesting insights that were discussed that I hadn’t really considered before.

The Internet has changed the world BECAUSE of non-regulation

The Internet’s existence has been the single largest factor in moving forward virtually every facet of our society today: how we communicate, how we work, shop, and engage with others around the world. This explosive growth that the world has seen year after year has largely been possible due to the fact that the Internet hasn’t been federally regulated up to this point. In fact, in 2005 the FCC released a set of “open internet principles” that were intended to prevent internet service providers from denying or slowing access to certain services or devices (you can check out the 2005 policy itself here).

This original stance on the FCC’s part helped allow the Internet to continue growing into both our personal and work lives (something that would be especially realized when the first iPhone was released just a couple of years later). With a non-regulatory approach, the Internet was able to grow quickly through bold ideas and innovation, rather than slowly because of burdensome rules and regulations.

The Internet is continually evolving, which is part of the reason some want regulation

More and more the Internet has evolved into every type of technology we interact with everyday, from our phones and cars to even our kitchen appliances. This growth has occurred at a blistering pace, and has put the Internet in a place that is far ahead of what was thought possible in 2005. While this has been a great thing for the way we work and play, it has also introduced a new set of challenges into our world, such as illegal content sharing and online privacy concerns.

It has also led to the question of whether or not the Internet should be regulated in some form as a result of these challenges; after all, if we don’t take the first steps now, couldn’t these issues become exponentially worse in the coming years? That question, combined with the growth costs faced by internet service providers, has been at the heart of those who are proponents of Internet regulation. Exactly what that regulation could like though isn’t quite clear.

The “Internet Fast Lane” debate

One of the biggest points of opposition that net neutrality supporters have against regulation is that it would give a higher level of authority to ISP’s over the internet speeds they offer to different customers. For example, if you’re a business owner who wants an edge on your competition, you could in theory pay your ISP more to allow for faster access to your website or online services you may provide. The argument is that this so-called “internet fast lane” would have the potential to stifle competition and make it difficult for startups with small budgets to get a foothold, and could also result in the end users having to pay more to larger companies who can afford to be in the “fast lane” (Netflix being a good example of this).

This was a question that I and others raised to the panelists, and the response was certainly something I hadn’t considered. Rather than assuming that these “fast lanes” would be inherently bad for startups, Mr. Swanson looked at it from a different angle, asserting that there are likely many small companies or startups out there that would prefer to pay for a faster and more dedicated connection, in order to deliver their new high-end services as efficiently as possible. He went on to say that while such an arrangement could be possible with some level of federal regulation, this is something that wouldn’t be possible or legal if the original principles established by the FCC in 2005 were followed. This tweet from TechPoint on the comment sums it up pretty well:

I can definitely understand his point, and I think it may be true to a point, but ultimately I think history will decide whether regulation or true net neutrality wins out. Overall though this was an excellent event to attend, and I learned a ton on the subject. I really encourage you to watch the full discussion on YouTube if you want to learn more yourself!

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