November 10, 2010

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For whatever reasons, network neutrality has become more of a political football than a technical principle. Lately, however, its advocates have come up with some original new approaches that may de-politicize the matter to some degree, and cause progress (or at least conversation) to occur.

One is John Palfrey’s Citizen’s Choice Framework for Net Neutrality. The key paragraphs:

In this memo, I propose that the FCC should pursue a compromise solution on Net Neutrality that both preserves the open Internet and permits opportunity for reasonable product differentiation and network management on IP networks.

The central tenet of this plan would be to locate the choice to differentiate services with the consumer, not with the Internet Service Provider. The overriding policy goal is to create incentives for increasing bandwidth infrastructure rather than monetizing or encouraging scarcity. And the plan should prioritize Managed Services that support national purposes as set forth in the National Broadband Plan.

Another is On Advancing the Open Internet by Distinguishing it from Specialized Services. Telephony and television are two of those specialized services. Distinguishing those from the open Internet, where (as Barbara van Schewick talked about yesterday) most of the innovation takes place, is critical. Especially since the open Internet today arrives at most of our doors as a secondary or tertiary service in the “triple play” offerings of telephone and television companies.

I think most of us in the U.S. have never experienced truly neutral Internet service from a phone or cable company, and that’s been one of the problems from the start. But we have experienced openness, and even the least technical among us know the difference between what we can do on the Net and what we can do with a phone (even “smart” ones — all of which are still crippled to some degree by phone companies) or a TV set top box. That’s why net neutrality still resonates as a label with users. They want it, even if they can’t define it, and even if no law is passed protecting it. The “it” is openness and support for anything that wants to use the Net. Not bias of the Net’s physical and logical infrastructure for specialized purposes.

The biggest of these will be television, most of which has already moved off the air and the rest of which will eventually move off of cable as well. TV is the elephant about to be digested in the Internet’s snake of time. We want the snake to survive the meal, not to become the meal. To prevent the latter from happening, we need new ideas, new proposals, new businesses, new understandings and undertakings by entities both public and private. These two proposals are both good efforts of that kind.