Why We Aren't 'Neutral' About the Net

Ever heard of “net neutrality”? No?

Then how about “Internet democracy”? Tip: Whenever the word “democracy” is mentioned in reference to business, run away fast. It’s almost guaranteed that it’s going to be more about central planning than freedom.

So what is network neutrality?

Its supporters want to require companies that deliver the web into homes and businesses—usually cable TV and telephone companies—to treat all of the data (known as "content") flowing through those connections the same. That would include a teenager’s IM (instant messaging), an emergency phone call or a televised presidential address. Every single item gets the same treatment regardless of importance, relevance, size or financial clout.

While such a “democracy” might sound attractive, it’s the sort of regulation that will stifle Internet innovation.

Some of the network operators that "pipe" the Internet into homes and businesses are considering charging willing content providers higher fees for improved services, such as faster and/or more reliable service and high-definition streaming video, which takes a lot of the available bandwidth. Under a net neutrality law, they couldn’t do that.

Internet giants Google and Yahoo, among others, say they fear that unless they get a neutrality law, a two-tiered Internet will emerge—where the biggest and richest providers get the best treatment, while the others are left with slow and inferior connections. And the more populist proponents worry that if Internet network operators can charge content providers more, then the costs will eventually be passed on to consumers.

But while Congress is debating these changes today, the Internet leaps ahead with tomorrow’s innovations.

"Technology moves faster than legislation," my colleague Bartlett Cleland told the Dallas Morning News. "It seems the only thing they could do is something damaging.” And that damage will likely slow the development of the web, which has been a key player in our growing economic strength.

The network operators need to be free to manage their businesses without government interference. That means favoring some content providers over others if that generates the money they need to continue innovating and meeting consumer demands. The net has never been neutral, it only appeared that way because there wasn’t that much information flowing through the system. Forcing net neutrality will only choke the natural progression of this developing technology.