Network Neutrality--Where's the Beef

The controversy over Google’s content delivery plans and the Wall Street Journal’s description of them has convinced me that the fight over network neutrality is a very strange one indeed. It appears to be a fight with only one side.

One problem is that violations of net neutrality in the U.S. seem to be almost as rare as unicorns. Yes, Comcast messed with BitTorrent connections early this year. Whether that was a willful violation of net neutrality or a clumsy attempt at traffic management is now moot; they got caught, the Federal Communications Commission scolded them, and they’re not doing it anymore. And neither, given the lack of incident reports showing up on the vigilant site of the Net Netrality Squad, is anyone else.

Thus, the concern over net neutrality appears to be entirely prospective. Big Internet service providers, like Verizon and Comcast, that have their own paid entertainment services have an interest in discouraging their subscribers from downloading entertainment content from third parties. Therefore, they have an incentive to throttle or otherwise interfere with Internet downloads or content streaming. It makes a nice syllogism, but if the threat is real, why isn't happening? Perhaps the relatively light hand of regulation already in place is really all that is needed.

The incoming Obama Administration is planning to pump billions of dollars into broadband expansion as part of its economic stimulus plan. It is vitally important that this money be used effectively and efficiently; those who would turn into into another big pork barrel project are already gathering at the trough. Done right, this could be a real boost to the economy of the future. It would be a tragic mistake to divert a lot of energy into a debate over what seems to be the illusory threat of net neutrality issues.

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