Duel Revisited: Network Neutrality

Fifty-two weeks ago, I suited up for a friendly but serious battle over the concept of network neutrality. My arguments for an open Internet architecture were opposed by fellow Fool Alyce Lomax and her preference for lighter regulation and a free marketplace.

Carnival of sorts
Back then, I envisioned a gloomy America circa 2010, where a "heavily amended COPE Act of 2006 has given service providers the unfettered right to give priority to some network protocols or services, and throttle others to a crawl." Network providers like Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) were striking it rich at the expense of major bandwidth users like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) . But the biggest losers in that dystopian vision were innovation and small business -- the big boys could afford to pay more for better service, after all.

Alyce chafed at the media circus around this issue, and wondered why the opinions of Michael Stipe and Alyssa Milano should matter to the Federal Communications Commission. In her mind, the legal protections for the open network model I wanted would harm innovation more than fees for upper-tier network access would.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," she said, "and that idea is often borne out by overzealous regulation, which often has entirely unexpected side effects. Despite net neutrality's proponents' claims, such regulation might actually mean that somewhere down the line, all of us will be stuck on a dirt road instead of an information superhighway."

Losing my religion
In the end, our readers took my side for the most part, giving me 63% of the 292 votes cast, against Alyce's 30% and a 7% minority of undecided Fools. A year has passed since that duel, and the issue is still up in the air, so let's get an update.

The very week of our battle, a Senate committee removed the neutrality support from a broadband regulations bill, kitchen sink and all. That defanged bill then passed into law in a solid victory for the tiered network proponents, who had been lobbying hard for those changes.

The public debate raged on for a few months, then faded into the background again. Along the way, another Senate bill was launched on behalf of network neutrality, while AT&T (NYSE: T  ) and its soon-to-be merger partner BellSouth softened their stance on the issue by maintaining a net-neutral platform for two years, in order to ensure a smooth approval process for their blessed union. 

The FCC is now officially investigating whether we need any protection or not. Meanwhile, the battlefield has shifted from government halls into the business district, as fresh-faced online media players like Brightcove and Joost attempt to wrangle preferential treatment from their service providers. Their video services are enormously bandwidth-hungry, and if they get into the consumer mainstream, Verizon and friends might be tempted to limit or block their traffic in some way.

In late-breaking news, the Federal Trade Commission just reported its findings on the neutrality issue, landing squarely on the side of Alyce and the network providers.  It's pretty clear, then, which way our regulatory bodies are leaning.

Endgame (out of time)
Today, we still have no guarantee from the government that the Internet we've grown accustomed to, for good or bad, will remain un-fooled-around with. And with the swift rise of online video services, content publishers are starting to feel the need to secure a nice piece of the traffic pie before it's taken off the table altogether. It's playing out very much like the network providers had dreamed.

Once again, my popular victory has been tarnished by real-world events going my opponent's way. I don't think it's a good development, and I can still see that dark vision of infrastructure operators holding content publishers and creators by the unmentionables. It's not too late to do something about it -- yet -- but things move fast in this business, and time is running short.

The final showdown is coming, and soon. Let's call this 2006 Duel a tie and send it into overtime. Stay tuned.

Further Foolishness:

Netflix is a current Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try a free 30-day trial of the newsletter to discover solid stock recommendations without the media circus.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google and Netflix, but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. He's not only deadlier, but smarter, too. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure won't stand for any more of these shenanigans!

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