Home' Technology Review : November December 2010 Contents Q&A
TR: What’s the benefit of net neutrality for
everyday Web users?
Lessig: It’s really important to recognize
the accident of the Internet. A bunch of
geeks, for a purpose that had nothing to do
with Google or Microsoft, decided to make
it so that different platforms could com-
municate. They wanted to find a neutral
platform. They couldn’t control it; it would
develop as the users wanted it to. Little did
they know, but they had created the per-
fect environment for innovation. Because
innovators know that if they develop the
next great widget, then they can deliver it
and they don’t have to get permission.
How should the government enforce this?
Have regulations aimed at blocking cer-
tain kinds of business models. The right
kind of [Internet] infrastructure owner is
interested in sending as many bits as fast
and as cheaply as possible. He’s not inter-
ested in “What special deals can I strike
with Hollywood so that I can leverage my
power to great profit on top of whatever
I am selling my bits for?” He is like the
electric company: just interested in the
cheapest way to deliver the commodity to
customers. The problem is, when you give
network owners quasi-monopoly power,
they think, “I don’t want to be in the com-
modity business. I want to be in the busi-
ness where I can create an artificial control
or scarcity and make lots more money.”
But if ISPs were just commodity busi-
nesses, would they have enough
incentive to develop their networks?
What we’ve seen internationally is an
explosion of companies competing to pro-
vide a commodity, just as we saw in the
United States when “open access” rules
[which once forced network operators to
lease their wires to competitors] encour-
aged a world of 6,000 ISPs. If private
incentives to provide public infrastruc-
ture are not sufficient, however, then we
need to think about more incentives. They
could be the sort of subsidies that have
supported infrastructure since time imme-
morial. Interstate highways and Internet
networks are essentially the same thing.
Should my ISP be allowed to charge me
more if I use a lot of bandwidth?
That fits with the electric-company analogy.
Exactly. I do have a problem if the
carrier is saying, “Okay, YouTube or
Blip.tv, you’re going to have to pay a
certain amount to have access to [the
customers on] our network.” We’ve seen
this again and again in history. A new
technology shakes up a marketplace.
Then there’s a period of amazing,
generative competition. And then it gets
consolidated and taken over, often
through a conspiracy with the govern-
ment that produces concentrated
monopoly industries. Radio is the best
Would it be that sinister if AT&T occasion-
ally delayed videos to iPhones in a busy
area to ensure that subscribers there
could make voice calls?
Content-neutral or company-neutral
interventions are not a problem. They’re
not ideal, but if you say, “ We’re at a peak
capacity mode, and we’re going to throttle
all high-[bandwidth] things for this
period of time,” that’s not troubling from
the perspective that I’m concerned with.
Because you’re not striking any special
deals with anybody. But the fact that
you’ve got [capacity] problems shouldn’t
mean that you just say, “ Therefore, we’re
just not going to worry about anything
that goes on in this space.” The reality is,
the future is wireless.
U.S . regulators are reconsidering their
approach to net neutrality rules. Are you
optimistic that the principle will survive?
I’m not. I think they’ve lost their win-
dow. By delaying, they’ve just allowed
[network operators] to secure the politi-
cal support they need to block this type
of rule. Democrats and Republicans have
been reminded of the campaign cash that
they get from these entities.
The concept of “network neutrality”
was meant to have been woven into
Internet regulations by now. Here’s the
idea: the networks that deliver the Inter-
net to consumers must be equally open to
all data packets, no matter whether these
are part of an e-mail from your mother or
a video from Hulu. It means that Internet
service providers can’t favor traffic to and
from certain companies while under-
mining competitors’ traffic. President
Obama supports the principle, and it had
momentum even before he took office: in
2008, the Federal Communications Com-
mission sanctioned Comcast for inter-
fering with Internet subscribers’ use of
BitTorrent, a file-sharing application.
Yet net neutrality is faltering. This year,
Comcast persuaded a U.S. appeals court
that the FCC overstepped its author-
ity when it enforced net neutrality as if it
were law. Meanwhile, one of net neu-
trality’s strongest backers, Google, has
stopped insisting that the principle apply
on wireless networks, which might need
to manipulate traffic to deal with capacity
constraints (see Briefing, p. 67).
This disturbs Lawrence Lessig, a net-
neutrality advocate who directs Har-
vard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian
Bergstein, asked Lessig why he thinks
innovation on the Internet is at risk.
Photograph by Steve MoorS
An advocate for free expression
worries that a key Web principle
is withering in Washington.
Nov10 Q&A.indd 36
10/12/10 4:01 PM
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