A Bill of Rights to Enshrine Net Neutrality?

Published June 1, 2008

After changing its mind about throttling Bittorrent traffic in March, Comcast pulled a 180ยบ turn on network neutrality. The firm recently announced plans to publish a consumers’ “bill of rights and responsibilities” detailing what subscribers should expect from their Internet service provider (ISP) and laying out network management best practices.

Naturally, the “Save the Internet” crowd isn’t satisfied with Comcast’s declaration. Being protocol-agnostic wasn’t enough for them, and neither is a consumer bill of rights. Customers will be safe from evil ISPs, they say, only with aggressive neutrality mandates from government, such as Rep. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) proposed legislation to create a set of national principles of net neutrality.

Ceding Too Much Ground

In one way, Comcast’s declaration is good news for Bittorrent users, and it illustrates the responsiveness of market forces. As a Comcast subscriber, I’m all for nondiscriminatory networks. (Though I seed torrents quite rarely, it’s nice to know the option exists.)

But declaring a consumer “bill of rights” is a risky approach. Comcast is ceding key ground to interventionists by implicitly admitting consumers have some inherent right to unfiltered, unmanaged networks. They don’t–despite what lawmakers such as Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) have suggested.

Essentially, Comcast is saying, “If we have to be neutral, then so should all the other guys. Otherwise, they’re violating consumer rights.”

Yet some ISPs are making just the opposite argument, identifying the benefits of curbing bandwidth-intensive applications. In comments filed with the Canadian government, Bell Canada contended throttling is in the public interest, explaining 95 percent of subscribers suffer on account of file-sharing.

Perhaps we shall see a competing bill of rights–one saying customers have the right to affordable broadband access free from slowdowns induced by file-sharing.

Regulation Is Real Threat

As bandwidth demand continues to grow, ISPs must make tough choices. Between price increases, bandwidth caps, and protocol discrimination, it is far from clear what’s best for the average user.

If AT&T is correct in its prediction that in three years 20 typical households will consume as much bandwidth as the entire Internet does today, carriers will need to invest billions of dollars upgrading both the backbone and the last mile. Discouraging investment through regulation poses a far greater threat to the Internet’s future than hypothetical neutrality violations.

If neutrality truly is as virtuous as its proponents suggest (and I suspect it is) then it will ultimately triumph on its own merits, without the need for government intervention. Still, exclusionary, proprietary networks may yet play an invaluable role in propelling connectivity, despite closed systems’ shortcomings.

Who knows what will work out best in the long run? Market experimentation is the only way to find out.

Ryan Radia ([email protected]) is a senior scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. An earlier version of this article appeared on the Tech Liberation Front Web site. Reprinted with permission.