Publishing Perspectives: Net Neutrality

by Richard Hamilton on 13 June 2014

If you’re like me, you use a news aggregator. These are sites like The Huffington Post (news and politics), sports.net (sports), and altsounds (music). Each site focuses on different topics, but they all pull together stories from various sources into a single website. Some stories are generated by the aggregator, but many are from other sources, so when you select a story you’re redirected to another site to view the story.

I find news aggregators to be essential to staying informed. However, I’ve noticed lately that if a story I’ve chosen doesn’t display within a few seconds, I back out and look for something else. Even though I’m not an impatient person by nature, I’ve found that I rarely will wait more than a few seconds before moving on.

As a result, which news items I read, and therefore my awareness of current events, is shaped in part by how responsive the various news sites are. The quicker a site responds, the more likely I am to read its content.

Delays occur for many reasons, including the speed of the website’s hardware, the route the information takes through the network, and other traffic in the system. However, until recently, in the United States, you could be reasonably assured that any delay was not caused because of the content of the information or the identity of the website that supplied that information. That is, telecommunications companies had to treat all content equally, regardless of the content or the source, a concept known as net neutrality.

According to Wikipedia, net neutrality is:

the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.

The assurance of net neutrality is changing and, depending on the actions of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it may go away. The question currently being considered by the FCC is whether to allow telecommunications companies to prioritize some traffic over other traffic and charge companies for faster service. As some have characterized it, they would be allowed to create, and charge for, a fast lane in the Internet.

A fast lane breaks the notion of net neutrality because a service provider that provided a fast lane would be giving preferential treatment to some data over other data. But is that such a big deal? Why not let Netflix and other companies pay for the privilege of faster service? The post office, FedEx, and UPS all charge varying prices for varying levels of service; why not let telecommunications providers do the same thing and let the free market work?

The arguments for preserving net neutrality vary widely, but mostly center on concerns related to lack of competition. In most parts of the country, there isn’t a free market for Internet service. You might have the choice between cable and DSL, but rarely are there more than a couple of viable alternatives, and often there is just one choice. Proponents of net neutrality argue that in the absence of regulations or laws that preserve net neutrality, lack of competition would lead to the following undesirable results:

  • Telecommunications companies would have little incentive to make their standard service better, and arguably, would have an incentive to make the standard service sub-standard in order to move companies to higher priced premium services.
  • Therefore, small startup companies that don’t have the resources to pay for the fast lane could be relegated to sub-standard service, limiting their ability to offer new products and, thus, stifling innovation.
  • Telecommunications companies that also sell content could discriminate against companies that provide competing content, or could arbitrarily block content because they disapproved of the nature of that content.

The arguments against net neutrality essentially rest on the idea that the free market is better than regulation. Opponents have the following concerns:

  • Regulation could stifle innovation and give telecommunications companies little incentive to improve infrastructure.
  • Telecommunications companies are finding it difficult to manage bandwidth, and regulations could make that harder.
  • Poorly written legislation could be harmful to the Internet.

While I am a proponent of free markets, Internet service in most places isn’t a free market, and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. In the absence of real competition, I come down in favor of preserving net neutrality. To me, the arguments against net neutrality mostly rely on a free market that doesn’t exist.

As a consumer of information, I don’t like the idea that possibly useful content could be slowed down or blocked simply because of the source of that content. As a publisher, I don’t like anything that might tie us even more tightly than ever to the big distributors: the Amazons, Barnes and Nobles, and other major players. Since most of our sales come from the major players already, that might not seem to be a big deal, but it represents an increased concentration of control over book distribution by the big players and makes the possibility of a competing distribution system for books and ebooks slimmer.

More information

If you’d like to learn more about net neutrality and the arguments for and against related regulations and laws, here are some resources:

  • Wikipedia article: Net Neutrality. This article includes links to country-specific articles about Canada, the Netherlands, the European Union, and the United States and outlines the arguments for and against net neutrality.
  • Beyond Net Neutrality: The new battle for the future of the internet. This resource, written by a proponent of net neutrality, has a thorough discussion with useful graphics that help explain the concept.

Richard L. Hamilton is the founder of XML Press, which is dedicated to producing high quality, practical publications for technical communicators, managers, content strategists, and marketers and the engineers who support their work. Richard is the author of Managing Writers: A Real-World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, and editor of the 2nd edition of Norm Walsh’s DocBook: The Definitive Guide, published in collaboration with O’Reilly Media.

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