"Network neutrality" is good, but enshrining it in law is notby Kenneth Neil Cukier / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
To understand why the internet is so important, and how it represents a revolution in communications, consider the telephone system. It was a closed network and a centralised one. The phone company—usually a state-run monopoly, like the old BT—metered every call through its switching centre, and billed them based on duration and distance. Any new feature, from touch-tone dialling to call forwarding, had to be accepted and put in place by the company. There was little incentive to innovate—especially if it might disrupt the status quo.
The internet overthrew this model of communications. It does not have a central organisation overseeing things. As a quilt of interconnected, privately owned networks (ergo “inter-net”), the system was designed simply to carry data without regard to its content, be it a web page, phone call or song. It is open, in that it permits anyone to unleash new services to the world without asking for permission. Because of this, people pay for access based on the amount of bandwidth they use, rather than the specific things they do. If the internet worked on the telecoms model, every email would be individually charged according to its destination and the length of the message.
This decentralisation and openness is a stimulus to innovation. Because the network doesn’t need to adhere to the interests of any one organisation, there is nothing to prevent new services cropping up. These things emerge from anywhere, be it the web (invented by a Brit in Geneva) or instant messaging (popularised by an Israeli firm), to Napster (created by a teenager in California). It can even challenge the existing powers—the price of phone calls fell so fast recently because competition came from calls routed through the net.
In the early days of the internet, the techies who built it summed up the philosophy behind their creation as the “end-to-end principle”—any entity can reach any other directly, without an intermediary like the centralised phone company to get in the way. Today, politicians and cyber-activists call the approach “network neutrality.” It is like free trade: open interaction among parties. Troublingly, it is under threat.
In the US, telecoms and cable companies are making noises about charging customers depending on what they do online, and billing major websites for the right to reach users. This would be in addition to paying for broadband access. Basic things like email or surfing the web may…