Whither Net Neutrality

In case you missed it during what we shall carefully call a busy news week, the FCC voted to overturn net neutrality rules. While this doesn’t mean net neutrality is dead – there’s now a long period of public comments, and any number of remaining bureaucratic hoops to jump through – it does mean that it’s at best on life support.

So what does this mean anyway? And does it actually matter, or is it the esoteric nattering of a bunch of technocrats fighting over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a CAT-5 cable?

Let’s start with a level set: what is net neutrality? Wikipedia tells us that it is

the principle that Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”

Thought of a different way, the idea is that ISPs should simply provide a pipe through which content flows, and have neither opinion nor business interest in what that content is – just as a phone company doesn’t care who calls you or what they’re talking about.

The core argument for net neutrality is that, if the ISPs can favor one content provider over another, then it will create insurmountable barriers to entry for feisty, innovative new market entrants: Facebook, for example, could pay Comcast to make their social network run twice as smoothly as a newly-minted competitor. Meanwhile, that ISP could, in an unregulated environment, accept payment to favor the advertisements of one political candidate over another, or to simply block access to material or any purpose.

On the other side, there are all the core arguments of de-regulation: demonstrating adherence to regulations siphons off productive dollars; regulations stifle innovation and discourage investment; regulations are a response to a problem that hasn’t even happened yet, and may never occur (there’s a nice layout of these arguments at TechCrunch here). Additionally, classic market economics suggests that, if ISPs provide a service that doesn’t match consumers’ needs, then those consumers will simply take their business elsewhere.

It doesn’t much matter which side of the argument you find yourself on: as long as there is an argument to be had, it is going to be important to have control over one’s traffic as it traverses the Internet. Radar’s ability to track, monitor and analyze Internet traffic will be vital whether net neutrality is the law of the land or not. Consider these opposing situations:

  • Net neutrality is the rule. Tracking the average latency and throughput for your content, then comparing it to the numbers for the community at large, will swiftly alert you if an ISP is treating your competition preferentially.
  • Net neutrality is not the rule. Tracking the average latency and throughput for your content, then comparing it to the numbers for the community at large, will swiftly alert you if an ISP is not providing the level of preference for which you have paid (or that someone else has upped the ante and taken your leading spot).

Activists from both sides will doubtless be wrestling with how to regulate (or not!) the ISP market for years to come. Throughout, and even after the conclusion of that fight, it’s vital for every company that delivers content across the public Internet to be, and remain, aware of the service their users are receiving – and who to call when things aren’t going according to plan.

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