the ambiguity of net neutrality 01.03.2007, 12:14 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Meanwhile in a recent Wired column, Larry Lessig, also strongly in favor of net neutrality but at the same time hesitant about the robust government regulation it entails, does a bit of soul-searching about the landmark antitrust suit brought against Microsoft almost ten years ago. Then too he came down on the side of the regulators, but reflecting on it now he says might have counseled differently had he known about the potential of open source (i.e. Linux) to rival the corporate goliath. He worries that a decade from now he may arrive at similar regrets when alternative network strategies like community or municipal broadband may by then have emerged as credible competition to the telecoms and telcos. Still, seeing at present no "Linus Torvalds of broadband," he decides to stick with regulation.
Network neutrality shouldn't be trumpeted uncritically, and it's healthy and right for leading advocates like Lessig to air their concerns. But I think he goes too far in saying he was flat-out wrong about Microsoft in the late 90s. Even with the remarkable success of Linux, Microsoft's hegemony across personal and office desktops seems more or less unshaken a decade after the DOJ intervened.
Allow me to add another wrinkle. What probably poses a far greater threat to Microsoft than Linux is the prospect of a web-based operating system of the kind that Google is becoming, a development that can only be hastened by the preservation of net neutrality since it lets Google continue to claim an outsized portion of last-mile bandwidth at a bargain rate, allowing them to grow and prosper all the more rapidly. What seems like an obvious good to most reasonable people might end up opening the door wider for the next Microsoft. This is not an argument against net neutrality, simply a consideration of the complexity of getting what we wish and fight for. Even if we win, there will be other fights ahead. United States vs. Google?
Jesse Wilbur on January 3, 2007 6:09 PM:
I know there has been some concern in Redmond wrt to Google and their thin-client office suite. But I think it's more alarmist to think of Google as the next Microsoft. The same neutrality that works in Google's favor also works in favor of Google's competitors. Or, really, net neutrality doesn't work in anyone's favor. What makes Google successful isn't a monopoly that restricts competition. It's a domination of the market based on quality of services.
We knock Google for doing scary things with its data, but it is fundamentally our choice to use Google; not the PC manufacturer as it was with Microsoft. There are many, many providers for your email and search needs. Google just does it better. And they will, until someone else does. When that time comes, you won't be locked in by a proprietary format with the new system: you can just switch.
Admittedly, Google is drawing a constellation of services to itself like stars to a massive black hole, making it harder and harder to fully avoid use. But they consistently open up their innovations to the community and encourage production from that community. What we should hope for is a continued use of open protocols and standards so that the innovation on the Google platform can quickly and easily be replicated on other platforms. That is the surest way to avoid the kind of monopoly that made Microsoft famous.
ben vershbow on January 4, 2007 12:11 AM:
"There are many, many providers for your email and search needs. Google just does it better. And they will, until someone else does. When that time comes, you won't be locked in by a proprietary format with the new system: you can just switch."
I don't think it's so easy. When that much personal data is invested in their system -- and we're not just talking email, but all manner of other services from calendars to blogs, to collaborative documents, photos, videos, general data storage, site traffic analysis etc. -- switching services is like switching spouses. It's "proprietary" in a much more insidious way. Monopoly made personal. And this is not even getting into data monopolization on an institutional scale, as with the appropriation of libraries.
But I agree there's some cause for optimism in the general trend toward open standards and sharing. This is indeed an exciting and competitive time, though an increasing share of the competition seems to involve small innovation engines jockeying to get sucked up by a small cluster of mega black holes.
Still, that we're even having this debate underscores how absolutely crucial net neutrality is. We're talking about the big things at stake in a networked culture, and whether you see the long arc bending toward the positive or the negative (as with most things, I'd bet on a mix), these competing futures all depend on democratic (or as close to democratic as possible) access to the network by all players involved, whether they're Google or a lonely blogger in Paducah.