At Google headquarters recently about 100 people showed up to protest Google’s apparently eroding support for ‘net neutrality.’ Net neutrality is the idea that the internet should not restrict the modes of communication that can be used across it, nor the sorts of devices that can be connected to it.
Lots of companies oppose net neutrality because it means they should not discriminate between traffic from different sources. Data traversing the internet – broken up into pieces called packets – includes everything from pirated DVDs being passed around using peer-to-peer filesharing systems to corporate phone calls being routed though voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephone systems to songs being downloaded for money from the iTunes store. Lots of companies would like to slow down or block file sharing, restrict services like VoIP, and allow people to pay more for faster paid downloads.
One big reason why this is worrisome is that it could prevent the emergence of new technologies. VoIP seems like a good example. Routing telephone calls through the internet challenges the monopoly of fixed-line telephone companies. Low cost VoIP calls have been a source of competition for them, and have probably produced improved services at lower prices for consumers. A future version of the web where companies can slow down or block traffic of undesirable types could be a version where new such technologies get strangled at birth.
That said, abandoning net neutrality could have some advantages, by improving network performance for those who use relatively low-bandwidth services like email and text websites. It could also facilitate the emergence of interesting new technologies, which are not viable on the internet as it exists now. For instance, the sometimes slow and clunky load times were one of the reasons why Google Wave proved to be a failure.
Given their enormous influence on the content and structure of the internet, the position of Google on net neutrality is of considerable public importance. The full details of their deal with Verizon – which is rumoured to allow special treatment of certain sorts of traffic – have not yet been publicly announced. When they are, there will surely be a lot of scrutiny and interest from the geekier components of the general public, as well as those with a particular interest on how technology policies affect societal change.
In Canada, Bell is probably the most vocal opponent of net neutrality, while Michael Geist may be the most prominent defender. I wrote a bit about net neutrality earlier, as well as about the related technology of deep packet inspection.