Azer Bestavros
Department of Computer Science
College of Arts & Sciences
Boston University

Office: 111 Cummington Street, MCS-276, Boston, MA 02215
Tel: 617.353.9726 / Fax: 617.353.6457 / Email: best

Net Neutrality: Is it worth the price? and why should you care?

How would you feel if the phone company decided that your calls to your friends and family are somehow less valuable than your calls to 800/900-numbers (which are more profitable to them) and as a result decides that at times of high call volume, they will reduce the quality of your connection to your friend and family (or even worse, just give you the standard recording "all lines are busy, please try your call at a different time")?

You would be upset, I am sure... But, you don't really have to worry about it, because the phone company (considered a common carrier) must adhere by the communication act enacted by Congress in 1934 and as a result can't really differentiate between calls.

Now, how about if the phone company decides that calls that carry conversations about (say) sports are less important that calls that carry conversations about (say) politics? Well, they cannot really do this because they can't listen in on a conversation (at least not without a court order) to tell its content. So, we don't have to worry about that.

But, in a world where "everything" (yes, including voice) is represented and communicated using "bits" over the Internet (a lot more about this later in the course), it turns out that both of the above are possible. Why? Well, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) lobbied hard in the late 1990s not to be classified as common carriers; they are classified as "Information Services" under the telecommunication act of 1996. So, they can do what phone companies cannot do -- preferentially treat one type of communication over another (e.g., connections to iTunes go faster than connections to YouTube). Even worse, because they can tell the content of a communication, they can preferrentially treat say web access over voice (like your use of skype on iPhones -- here is an article about this when it was big news about a year ago).

This state-of-affairs has prompted a whole movement -- known as "Net Neutrality" -- that is trying to make sure that the Internet remains "open" and "democratic" in the sense that ISPs do not preferentially treat various parties (or communications) based on business objectives.

Here is a nice video about Net Neutrality (and why you should care).

Even Google (the self-annointed "be no evil" company) seems to have crossed to the "dark side" by supporting a Verizon position (here is a recent article with lots of details). As a matter of fact, this move by Google prompted Jon Stewart (one of my favorite characters on TV) to bring it up in his Daily Show (see the video).

Needless to say, there are many people against Net Neutrality (including senators and top business people), who make fairly decent arguments that Net Neutrality foes are quick to predict the demise of the Internet if Net Neutrality is violated (see this article).

So, here is my question:  At the end of the day, somebody will have to pay for the resources it takes to carry all these bits around... If Net Neutrality is to prevail, society will have to "pay" for it. If we do not like the "market" (supply and demand) to take care of it, then we must be ready to tax ourselves to support an Internet that is "open" and "democratic".

Is Net Neutrality worth the price, or are proponents of Net Neutrality just too idealistic? What is its worth to you? An extra $1 a month of a federal tax added to your ISP monthly fee? $5? Is an open Internet too valuable to let capitalism take it over? What about the impact on the rest of the world?