Radia on Network Neutrality

My former co-blogger Ryan Radia has an excellent op-ed on the network neutrality debate. I particularly liked his discussion of the relative merits of open platforms:

In the battle between open and closed devices, wireless subscribers have voted with their wallets. So far, they have preferred the iPhone over open source devices like the “Google phone.” In the intensely competitive wireless market, the iPhone’s success shows that innovation can occur, and even thrive, within the confines of proprietary ecosystems like the iPhone.

But under the FCC’s proposed neutrality rules, the iPhone and similar devices that place limits on the content and applications that users can access would likely be against the law.

To be sure, the virtues that neutrality proponents espouse– open access, transparency, democracy, and the like– are all legitimate, even important values. Arguably, the open nature of the Internet has been instrumental in fostering many of the innovations that consumers enjoy today. But it is wrong to assume, as neutrality proponents do, that today’s “capital-I” Internet is the end all, be all network, and that the future of global communications ought not include some proprietary elements.

Technological innovation is an unpredictable beast. Networks for transmitting data that have yet to emerge– so-called “splinternets”– may well reshape the nature of global communications in years ahead. One need only look to the FCC’s widely criticized telephone and cable regulations to witness how rigid federal mandates can thwart high-tech evolution and steer the market in unnatural directions.

I think my sympathies are a little more on the “open” side of the debate than Ryan’s are. But I think this strikes the right tone from a policy perspective. If I’m right that open networks are superior to closed ones, then they’re likely to succeed in the marketplace without or without government help. On the other hand, if I’m wrong, there’s a real danger that regulating now will lock in an architecture that we might want to see change in the future. Either way, the right thing to do is to wait and see how the market evolves, not regulate based on highly speculative harms. Ryan’s piece is worth reading in its entirety.

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5 Responses to Radia on Network Neutrality

  1. Kaleberg says:

    “But under the FCC’s proposed neutrality rules, the iPhone and similar devices that place limits on the content and applications that users can access would likely be against the law.”

    That sounds like a flaw in the rules as proposed, not the idea of open networks. Not being able to run sophisticated weather forecasting software on my laptop has nothing do to with whether my DSL line lets me browse the White House home page.

    Personally, I’d be in favor of regulating first. It is much easier to change government regulations than to crack down on a powerful corporation that has twisted a new technology to the detriment of our national well being. Consider the railroads for a good example. Their tariffs enforced the north-south division into industrial and agricultural regions, and they basically controlled and restricted US industrial development for nearly a century before Eisenhower cracked their cartel with the interstate highway system, a much more open system. For a hilarious take on the problem with regulating openness after the fact grab a copy of It Happened to Jane.

  2. Tom Lee says:

    What in Genachowski’s speech could possibly be viewed as threatening to the iPhone? What evidence is there that “splinternets” could possibly outperform the internet such that it would make sense to abandon it as an investment?

  3. I don’t find the splinternets point all that persuasive. But I think the iPhone issue is a real concern. If AT&T has a neutral network, but it only sells locked-down phones that exclude Skype from their app stores, I’m not sure how that’s any different, functionally, from blocking Skype at the network level. Genachowski hasn’t proposed specific language, so I don’t know how (or if) it’ll address the point, but I think it’s a real concern.

  4. Tom Lee says:

    I agree that it’s too soon to tell. And while I didn’t object to the FCC beginning to probe Apple’s app store activities — I think there’s little harm in sending a letter, though I wouldn’t support regulatory intervention — it has admittedly muddled the situation.

    You may be right that network operators will be forced to allow arbitrary devices to be attached to their networks. In the absence of carrier subsidies, I don’t think this’ll make a huge difference to the shape of the marketplace.

    The specific example of the iPhone isn’t a great one, I don’t think, because as you note the restriction is occurring at the device level. The functional upshot may be similar in the individual case, but practically speaking I don’t think the FCC is going to start saying that devices and networks are the same — that way lies madness, with regulation of music released in Windows-only formats and all kinds of other unintended nastiness.

  5. Tom Lee says:

    Either way: the broader point is probably that the means by which net neutrality applies to wireless networks is going to be complicated, and potentially very different from how it applies to other networks.

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