Full disclosure: I really hate the politics of net neutrality. If you want a good article on why the FCC's move to reclassify internet broadband under Title II is a great idea, I recommend a recent post on Ting's blog: "Getting straight about common carriers and Title II". If you want someone to tell you why it's a terrible idea, I recommend a recent op-ed in Wired by Geoffrey A. Manne: "The FCC's Net Neutrality Victory is Anything But".
That said, I think net neutrality is hugely important, and essential to the character of the internet as we know it. That's an easy statement to make. Just like saying you love "freedom". Obviously the real challenge is how you get freedom, how you keep freedom, and punting on the methods while simply saying you prefer freedom usually doesn't get you very far. Well, I'm going to punt. I prefer net neutrality, and I'll tell you why and just a little bit about how.
Net neutrality, for the whole internet, means nobody plays favorites.
The internet is a network of networks. Essential to its character is that any node of the network can communicate with any other node. That's the internet's job; routing messages from one edge of the network, on through the pipes and switches and fibers, and all the way over to the destination.
The very nature of a network like this is that if you change the behavior of just one node, or just one type of message, you've changed the nature of the entire network, because it's all connected. If you play favorites with one thing, you've automatically played un-favorites with all the other things. If one ISP banned YouTube, or charged extra for Netflix, or made Twitter slow, even though only their customers would be affected, it would impact the nature of the internet for everyone.
Net neutrality, for the whole internet, means nobody plays favorites. Politically, net neutrality means nobody is allowed to play favorites.
Now I'll offer you two semi-contradictory statements to spice things up:
- The internet is naturally neutral.
- Neutrality is an active effort.
I think these two statements can co-exist as true, but it takes some pondering. To expand on the first point: There's something inherent in how the internet was designed, and how it has grown and evolved, that seems pulled gravitationally toward neutrality. The desire of the internet's edge nodes (us users, and our smart refrigerators) to communicate with each other is so powerful, that the network naturally shapes itself to operate in a neutral manner. Network operators might block one thing, or throttle another thing, but the users are so damn precious about the network that eventually those bans and limits are lifted and the internet snaps back to its natural state.
But to clarify point two: it's not easy being neutral. Operating the network is expensive. Laying down fiber optic pipes, and setting up switches to connect one network to another network, and being fair and balanced about all of it, is a difficult undertaking. Just imagine if we'd never had an internet, just isolated networks, and one genius billionaire woke up one day and said to his butler: "What if we network all the networks!?" He'd look like a crazy person if he proposed building all the infrastructure we have today. That infrastructure was built in response to the demands of all of us needy, optimistic, communicative edge nodes.
And there are temptations all along the way for a network operator to be un-neutral. Take a dominant cable company like Comcast: when they build up their network capacity, they're building infrastructure for their competitors to pipe in high quality video. Take a fourth place wireless contender like T-Mobile: by offering free unlimited music streaming to their subscribers, they can make a huge PR splash and maybe attract some new customers.
Billions of edge nodes, wanting something great.
Some of the internet's problems are just inherent in its growing pains. One node starts sending a whole bunch more messages, and the people who build the infrastructure have to respond to that influx or a choke point will emerge. This comes down to real, live, breathing IT professionals adjusting their networks according to demand, trying to play fair, trying to get theirs, and trying to keep their end of the network healthy. None of it happens automatically, or because of the internet's simple nature, it happens in response to the internet's simple nature: billions of edge nodes, wanting something great.
A while back, the Karma team sat down and talked about what net neutrality meant to us, what it required of us, because, like I said, it's not automatic. One thing we realized is that our billing model alone tends to keep us honest. By charging per gigabyte, we're incentivized to give our users a pure, unadulterated, unthrottled connection to the internet in as many places as possible, as often as possible, and on as many devices as possible. By picking a metric that's natural to the internet — a quantity of bytes delivered — instead of an old school phone metric like "lines" or monthly quotas, we're in a good position to continually deliver people what they want.
Karma has an agreement in place with its network operator that no data will be throttled before it's delivered to a user's Karma device. And we have an agreement with our users that we won't throttle traffic before we pass it on to them.
But we can't rest there. Net neutrality is an ongoing process. If some tempting offer comes along down the road to prefer one kind of data, or block this or that, Karma as a company is committed to doing the right thing for our users and the internet. We'll stay neutral, because that's what the network wants, and that's what the network will get in the end.