Network Neutrality: A 25-Year Perspective

Posted on August 26th, 2006 by

I turn 25 tomorrow—not 25 years on this planet, but 25 years on the net. It was on August 27th, 1981, that I first used a computer connected to the Arpanet, which was just then morphing into the Internet, a process completed 16 months later. That transition from Arpanet to Internet was the first of many innovations I have witnessed, which give me some perspective on the network neutrality debate currently facing Congress and how its resolution will affect innovation.

Net neutrality is a simple idea. Because I pay for a 6-megabit per second internet connection, my service provider ought to be willing to convey to me six million bits of my choice each second, without worrying about what those bits are used for or who originated them. Maybe I am downloading six million bits of mass-market culture from a media giant. Then again, maybe I am accessing six million bits of a friend’s bright new idea for how to use the Internet. Either way, it ought to take one second.

The debate over net neutrality stems from two conflicting theories regarding what sort of network architecture promotes innovation. Both theories make sense, as theories. But only one of them matches the reality of the quarter century of innovations that I have lived through.

Those who recently came to the net from business school think innovation is promoted by an architecture optimized for the creation of revenue streams. That way entrepreneurs will have an incentive to innovate. If content providers and service providers can enter into contracts for preferential service, they will have an incentive to offer us enhanced content.

The problem with that theory is that the real innovation hasn’t come from content providers, it has come from individuals with bright new ideas to show off. In fact, the most innovative uses of the Internet haven’t even fallen into established notions of “content,” let alone originated from established content providers. Until the first web page came along, the Internet was humming along nicely without anyone having a clue what a web page might be. All that it took was one person to create the first web server and the first web browser and voilà, we were in the age of the web, because the already existing Internet carried the bits from the web server to the web browser without regard to what they were and without needing a specialized business arrangement.

This history didn’t stop the web from making a lot of people a lot of money—but only later. The revenue streams flowed because the innovation had happened, rather than the innovation happening because the revenue could flow. Over and over again, that has been the pattern on the Internet. The Internet architecture promotes innovation not by facilitating revenue streams but by getting out of the way of the innovators who connect through it.

Because individuals’ access to the Internet is mediated by a very small number of service providers, the architecture of innovation that has served the net so well for decades is endangered unless Congress comes to its defense. We risk being left with the kind of innovation that creeps forward from one season’s television series to the next, rather than the kind that leaps forward from email to the web.


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