Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Zittrain offers nuanced discussion on net neutrality


British communications law professor Jonathan Zittrain provides a somewhat equivocal discussion of network neutrality in Chapter 8 “Strategies for a Generative Future” of his new book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It,” (review link) in a section called “Network Neutrality and Generativity” starting on p. 178.

“Generativity” is a term that he defines in his book, but it is somewhat like modular interchangeability, and fits the spirit of neutrality. The debates over network neutrality have focused in large part on fears that ISPs and telecommunications companies (and especially cable or Internet television programming services perhaps) would discriminate among different forms of content, hurting small content-suppliers and countering the “democratizing” aspect of the Web. The rise of social networking sites and their wide open nature (and their facile “reputational” abuse by customers at times) perhaps would counter those fears. Zittrain is more concerned that companies will interfere with various other forms of connectivity among various communities of users – the teenage home-tinkering kind, perhaps. (I’m reminded by his discussion of a friend who set up a web server in 1993 on a 386 machine just to prove to himself that he knew how to do it.) Generally, he believes that the need for legislative oversight is minimal if there is enough market competition, and his overall personal preference does seem to be toward the libertarian, less regulated approach. But he admits that there can be anomalies. For example, ISPs could want to charge search engine companies for giving their subscribers access, but then would they pass the implied saving on to subscribers? He also discusses possible anomalies with “appliance-like” APIs or applications, such as games (related to XBOX) and even Google maps, where, in some cases, it is not practical to expect the industry to support a large number of service suppliers and a lot of competition.

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