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Against Net "Neutrality"

tue18jul2006—29w199d54%— 22h21m00s—0utc

Get this: I love the net. There are few human inventions I treasure more; damn, there are few things I treasure more. Consciousness predated the net only by a slight margin in my life, and I can’t help but be a part of the translucent generation it has engendered, the first generation whose values have been shaped by the net.

Yet, I fail to understand what all the brouhaha regarding net neutrality is all about. Of course I’m moved by all the calls to action and won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children threats of impending netdoom, but I fail to see the real problem, the “great injustice”. And beneath the obvious good intentions, the rhetoric with which this argument is being fought by “my side”, the side of prominent netheads (Google’s Vint Cerf for instance), reeks of governmentism, stasism, and don’t-let-walmart-wreck-your-downtown anti-capitalistic sentiment — not my cup of tea.

Frankly, it all seems to me as articulate special-interest groups arguing for the right to impose their vision of the net on telcoms. This may well be the net’s first reactionary upheaval of nostalgia and status quo1, the first symptom of the sclerosis that plagues every human institution. An end-to-end internet is one of the greatest accomplishments of modernity, a vision I personally cherish, and the one that has successfully guided the web up ‘til now — granted. But that doesn’t mean I want it imposed on others, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow others to experiment with new visions. If we really cherish it so much, shouldn’t we be willing2 to pay for it its true economic price? If it is truly the one best way, shouldn’t it be able to survive competition on its own merits? It seems like a particularly devious contradiction to call net intervention net neutrality.

With this in mind, it was a blow of fresh air to find T. J. Rogers recent opinion on the issue:

What do you think of Net neutrality?

This is where basically the Net is not allowed to discriminate? I think it’s an obscenity. I think people that have paid for the wires and cables should be able to charge whatever they want for their product. And for other people to come in and force companies to run their businesses and set their prices is absurd. If some of those companies came into being by virtue of a government monopoly — the old AT&T comes to mind — then fine. But to go and tell companies what they can and cannot charge money for — that’s un-American. It’s against freedom. It’s just bad news.

It was only later that I found out why Rodgers sounded so rational: he’s a libertarian. Also to treasure from that interview is this fragment:

Some claim they [CIGS, a type of non-silicon cell] are close to equal to silicon in terms of efficiency.

You go buy one. You know, that’s another problem we’ve got in the industry. There are a lot of con men in the solar industry who say a lot of things that are really, really, very wrong.

Every libertarian I’ve known of has had this respect for personal, boot-maker, contextual, decentralized knowledge, this hard social virtue of refraining from telling other people what to do (expressed even more clearly later in the interview: “I don’t want to second-guess the people that are trying — I’m not an expert — and they’ll surprise you when they do.”). They all recognize the world’s complexity and the great problems of our models of it. So yeah, I liked this guy. I googled him and I found out this most-interesting open letter from him and a book of his on Amazon, No-Excuses Management, that I promptly ordered.

Anyway, back on topic, what do you think on net neutrality? What am I failing to see from this tangle? Why do so many smart, visionary people oppose it?

1 Or was it Berners-Lee’s 1993 yelling at Andressen for adding images to the web?

2 Well, of course we won’t do it willingly, but Economics lesson #1 is you can’t cheat reality. (“Reality, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”) We will pay the price of imposing net neutrality somewhere (probably in the telcom innovation side of the equation).

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