Net Neutrality – Is all data created equal?


In principal, the bits of information required to display this blog should reach you as fast as any other information accessed on the Internet. It shouldn’t have to wait in line while your Skype call is coming through and it also shouldn’t be privileged over, let’s say, other (not so interesting) blogs. That’s what they call “net neutrality”.

Net neutrality is one of those labels that instantaneously suggest a meaning to you. I hear “net neutrality” and I immediately think I know what it’s all about. It’s about all data traveling with equal speed and privileges through the pipes and cables that make up the Internet. Done.

Not only does the label “net neutrality” suggest an immediately apparent label. It also offers a recommendation for what you may want to think about it. Should all data be treated as created equal and enjoy the same information super highways and pass through the same bottlenecks? It sure should. Done again.

Some people in the U.S. think so

A man called Julius Genachowski is a true believer in the above reasoning. That wouldn’t matter so much if he wasn’t the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States. Almost two weeks ago, he suggested to guarantee net neutrality once and for all by turning it into law.

That sounds like a pretty popular idea, for reasons mentioned just above. To ask for all data to be treated equally is like saying, “Let’s bring the Internet to all the people”. It sounds like the right thing to do. And it might be. The problem with these sort of statements is, though, that things get a bit messy once you try to identify what we’re actually talking about and, secondly, there’s always a case to be argued against it.

Some more equal than others?

So who will have to treat what data equally? And what is “equally”? I’m not terribly knowledgeable of Internet technology (as in hardware), but I have the feeling that most data travels through the hands of a lot of machines and pipes before it reaches my computer – company servers, ISPs, my modem at home, and so on.

They all have to pretend like they really don’t care what data it is they’re dealing with. It doesn’t help that these servers and pipes are geographically placed in and across multiple countries who happily continue to draft Internet policies of their very own.

And what data? All data? Are Youtube videos, Skype calls, emails, banking transactions, and my Google documents all the same and therefore included in net neutrality? The way I understand things at the moment, people like Genachowski (and thousands of Internet activists behind him), really mean all data.

That also makes their lives much easier because once you agree to distinguish between different categories of data, you’re in big, big trouble (yes, my illegal football live stream is more important than my housemate’s torrent downloads).

Interest rates

The really, really tricky thing about net neutrality is that lots of stakeholders have an interest in it – either because they favor it or because they despise it. The U.S. government said something about innovation. Equal rights to all data means more innovation because your access conditions to the Internet aren’t determined by how much money you can pay for it. Right. So much for the top-level, societal well-being argument (that you can find in the introduction and conclusion of a lot of technology policies these days, I may add).

Any other interest groups? The ISPs, of course, and all other related companies providing access to the Internet. How brilliant their lives and bottom lines would be if they could charge some clients more than others for either sending out their data quicker (e.g. web broadcasters) or sending other people’s data to them quicker (e.g. stock trading investment bankers).

And the users? What about us at home? That’s were things become so complex that I will finish this post after this paragraph. The problem is that it depends. Things can change any moment. When my Dad calls on Skype, I want that data to go as fast as it can because the sound quality is usually lamentable. Like I said, I also don’t enjoy my housemates downloading from torrent servers, but if I ever wanted to do that (heaven forbid), I would quite like the movie to get here a little faster.

In the end, it seems, trying to come up with rules for how to speed up or slow down data on the Internet is so highly political and controversial that we’re better off aiming for some sort of net neutrality. Not like that’s an easier task.

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