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The Meanings of Network Neutrality

Ed Felten has posted a nice taxonomy of the several meanings people take when they use the term Network Neutrality, briefly:

1. End-to-End Design
2. Nonexclusionary Business Practice
3. Content Nondiscrimination

You can read more about what Ed means on his post.

I’ve been developing a taxonomy of issues that interact with and are bound with Network Neutrality. So far there are six items:

  • Scarcity Management - the idea that network elements are scarce and expensive and need managing by their operator.
  • Business Model Preservation - the idea that if networks are completely stupid and just deliver the bits, they’re a commodity that one can’t make money running. This is also tied to the idea that telcos and cablecos think of themselves as sellers of end-user applications rather than conduits to other providers’ apps.
  • Non-Standard Handling of Data - the idea that a provider of Internet connectivity has the power to handle sets of bits differently based on criteria that are not specified in public standards. Non-standard handling includes pricing plans that require charging differentially for such non-standard handling.
  • Innovation Suppression - non-standard handling of data presents a barrier to new apps—they might not work everywhere.
  • Gathering Personal Information - the idea of adding value to a commodity connection by figuring out what the person at the end of the connection values. The gathering itself doesn’t necessarily change how the data move through the network, but Andrew Odlyzko pointed out in 2003 that this practice provides a compelling commercial impetus to handling bits in non-standard ways.
  • Free Speech - non-standard handling of data may exist for reasons other than business. Making less money may not be the only thing a provider dislikes.

When I sat down to write this, I had hoped for a simple, straightforward mapping between Ed’s taxonomy and mine. Unfortunately, no. All three of Ed’s points—about engineering, economics and free speech—bear in different degrees on all six of my issues. But there’s one big plausible fourth point—about organizational culture—that’s arguably missing. The telephone companies and cable companies are institutions that see themselves as providers of applications, and much of the NN discussion is about adopting the network architecture to this central cultural perception. Put in pro-neutrality language like Ed’s other three, it’d be something like Layered Functionality.

By David Isenberg, Principal Prosultant(sm), isen.com, LLC

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