Yesterday I addressed some of the comments on my net neutrality post dealing with the broadband market. Today I'll delve a little deeper on another issue you asked about: type-based traffic differentiation.
Several users commented on Google’s position that reasonable type-based differentiation of Internet traffic can be an acceptable business practice. As we explained in our FCC comments, we do not dispute that broadband providers should have the ability to manage their networks, as well as engage in a broad array of business practices. To us, the real question comes down to what kinds of business models and network management techniques rely on unilateral control over last-mile broadband facilities (the proverbial “on-ramps” to the Internet), in the service of anticompetitive or discriminatory intent.
Most known network management techniques will create few if any marketplace harms. So, for example, we believe that a broadband provider should have the leeway to utilize legitimate application and content-neutral network management practices that seek to neutralize objective network harms. These practices would include halting harmful denial of service (DOS) attacks, or blocking certain traffic containing viruses or worms.
We also stated that it may be a reasonable business practice to prioritize all packets of a certain application type. Our rationale for that position is that there may well be tangible end user benefits from giving preferential treatment to certain Internet packets, such as those in a streaming video transmission, in order to enhance the end user experience. As long as the categories of “type” are identified and designed with objective criteria in mind (such as sensitivity to latency or jitter), and prioritization is apply in an even-handed manner to all packets in that category, the practice can be a fair one. If, on the other hand, type-based prioritization is used to promulgate discriminatory practices – such as degrading or prioritizing certain applications based on an intention to impair the offerings of competitors – such practices should be prohibited as unreasonable.
I will be the first to say that allowing type-based prioritization is a close call, and reasonable minds certainly can differ. Many in the Internet community lack trust that the broadband provider will employ packet prioritization over last-mile networks in a manner that still preserves an open Internet environment and does not facilitate the introduction of anticompetitive practices. Moreover, prioritization generally creates a host of practical, economic, and technical problems, not least of which is that the broadband carrier has fewer incentives to build out its network capacity where it can make more money simply by charging for differentiated service.
On balance, though, we believe that the possible end user benefits from differentiating between certain broad categories of Internet traffic outweigh the potential competitive and discriminatory threat. That doesn’t mean that we cannot subsequently criticize, and seek to halt, any such practices that take an anticompetitive turn. Nor does it mean that Google somehow is going “soft” on network neutrality. We have merely drawn the line in a slightly different place than others in the pro-net neutrality camp.
Tomorrow, I'll address your comments about another net neutrality topic: paying for bandwidth.