Monday, November 09, 2009

A paper in March 2009 from the University of Minnesota School of Mathematics: watch out for logical traps in arguing net neutrality

A paper in March 2009 from the University of Minnesota School of Mathematics and the Digital Technology Center, by Dr. Andrew Odlyzko carries out a thought experiment in showing the dangers of carrying the intellectual arguments for network neutrality too far. The paper, published in The Review of Network Economics, is titled “Network Neutrality, Search Neutrality, and the Never-ending Conflict Between Efficiency and Fairness in Markets”, with link here.

The discussion of this article was continued by Nate Anderson in Ars Technica on Oct. 28, 2009, in an article with link here.

The concern is that after zeroing in on ISP’s and telecommunications companies, we’ll apply the same “logic”, inexorably and relentlessly (rather like pursuing Nixon for his tapes) to the behavior of search engines.

Differential pricing, based on what a consumer is willing to pay based on the way the consumer approached the provider, is necessary in most business models, the argument goes. Yup, Donald Trump talked about it all the time on “The Apprentice.” Cable companies do it by charging existing customers more than new customers, because if the inertia or inelasticity in changing companies. So it shouldn’t be surprising that search engine companies could get tempted or lured by it. (Odlyzko goes into a complex hypothetical example with Starbucks.) Yet the market will probably limit how much price manipulation --- and therefore engine result placement – really happens. The fact is, with no regulation, search engines companies in the late 90s found in their best interest to index the content of amateurs (including me) free, even without the use of metatags, meaning that newbies with innovative content, even if not particularly crafty or pretty technologically, could get noticed, and very globally.

Odlyzko’s paper comes from an upper Midwestern campus that we think of as progressive and perhaps leftist – but the tone is certainly libertarian to conservative, somewhat like the writings of U of M graduate Tim Lee (which appear on Ars Technica). It wouldn’t surprise me to find the Washington Times running some of the materials by either writer.

Wikipedia attribution link for U of Minnesota campus picture. I lived about two miles from here, in downtown Minneapolis, from 1997-2003.

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