Why Net Neutrality Won't Matter

Congress recently voted down a bill to enforce net neutrality. Net neutrality means that when you pay for your Internet connection, your provider doesn’t double-dip by charging Google or others an extra toll to be able to reach you at full speed. Right now you pay your cable company for a connection at a particular speed, no matter whose websites you visit. Soon, you might get high-speed for select services, and low-speed for everything else.

The reason for this is not, as cable and phone companies claim, because they can’t afford to give you the service you are already paying for. Rather, it’s control. Companies like Google, YouTube, and Apple are offering video that competes with cable. And companies like Skype (as well as free software like Asterisk) are letting you make phone calls over the Internet. If these catch on, fewer people will want regular phone and cable.

But I don’t think this will make much of a difference due to another technology called peer-to-peer (P2P) networking. Using P2P, you can already download all the bootleg music and movies you want, and at high speed. Or you can download legal, free stuff, such as Linux software. Time Warner has already signed up with BitTorrent Inc., a maker of free P2P software of the same name, to distribute their movies and TV shows.

The way BitTorrent and other P2P software works is that you don’t just download, you simultaneously upload as well. If you’re downloading a movie, you start out with a few random pieces of the movie, and then you trade your pieces with others until you have thw whole movie. It’s like a scavenger hunt where everyone shares their clues.
But by working together, the original host site for that movie just has to send out one copy, and thousands of copies of the movie end up being downloaded.

Unless (and that’s a big unless) the cable and phone companies manage to block P2P, companies like Apple, Google, and YouTube will be able to avoid toll charges by getting your friends and neighbors to help to distribute movies. It could turn into a cat-and-mouse game between the P2P software and the Internet companies’ P2P filters. Just as spam evades spam filters by pretending to be normal email, the movies you buy from Time Warner will pretend to be email, IM, or some other traffic.

As for me, I’ll be signing up for St Louis Park’s municipal wireless Internet access, so I can ditch DSL just as soon as Qwest stops allowing my DSL provider to use their phone lines. (Yes, the phone companies lobbied for– and won– the right to get rid of competition. With what excuse? That competition was “anti-competitive.”) The DSL speeds are lousy around here and cable is overpriced. And I trust my city council to be net neutral– since unlike cable or Qwest, they can be voted out if they annoy the public.