I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say “net neutrality is crap,” but John Dvorak’s column sums up the substance if not quite the tone of my feelings on the issue—which is to say, it’s a disconcertingly nebulous solution to a thus-far largely hypothetical problem. It’s certainly understandable that people think it’s important to preserve the openness of the Internet, and I guess I can imagine scenarios where this might justify some form of regulation as a specific response to practices that were undermining it. But I’ve never understood the sense of urgency to do something about it now, rather than seeing whether any of these doomsday scenarios actually manifest themselves, and whether market checks and existing oversight mechanisms are sufficient to remedy whatever problems arise. Maybe I’ve said this before, but in a lot of ways the threat of potential regulation seems like it might be more useful than any concrete set of rules. The effect of the threat, after all, is to make ISPs wary of doing anything with the effect of squelching innovation or constraining users to the point that the backlash provokes a congressional response. Any actual regulation will have to more specifically describe practices or architectures that are ruled out, which likely means precluding some beneficial along with some pernicious ones: “Don’t be evil” is a catchy motto, but you can’t actually make it a legislative mandate. If specific regulation ever does become necessary, we’ll have a much better idea of what it ought to look like when it’s a response to a real-world problem.
Update: Folks reasonably enough mention Comcast’s use of DPI to throttle BitTorrent, but I think this is a case in point. We’ve had a combination of consumer backlash and an FCC move to get them to use a protocol-neutral mechanism for congestion management, and I’d rather like to see how that plays out. If Comcast succeeds in getting the FCC order overturned, it remains to be seen whether they’ll actually reinstate the old policy in light of the bad press it’s attracted. Supposing both those things happen, though, I think it’s important to be clear that the offensive aspects of this are the method used and the fact that they were deceiving people about it. So if some further action is necessary, I’d think the appropriate remedy would be for the FTC to enforce transparency about these practices—online or off, you can’t degrade a service people paid for and lie about it—and an amendment to ECPA to clarify that DPI for congestion management doesn’t fall under the “ordinary course of business” exemption.