Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Network Neutrality

The following is the slightly corrected text of a comment I submitted to whichever part of the government was studying network neutrality, and requesting comments from the public, back in mid-January. I submitted this comment as a private citizen, but, of historical necessity, it references my employer. Let me be perfectly clear about this: I in no way speak for, or represent, my employer. Neither do I decide, or have input into, any of its policies. My employer doesn’t know, or care, about about my opinions. I’m speaking for myself only. Believe me.

I reproduce the comment here in the hope that some reader’s perspective on network neutrality might be informed by it.

I’ve been using the Internet since 1987, before the web was invented, and long before most people had even heard the word “email”, let alone “Internet.” In 1993 I created The University of Texas at Austin’s first home page on what is estimated to have been one of the first 200 web servers in existence. I was ordered by my employer to take it down, because the web was not the future they had selected. I ignored the order. The future they had selected had already come and was rapidly fading into irrelevance, but their policies blinded them to that fact.

If the visionless decision makers who told me to take down those web pages had had control over the network, and the type of traffic it carried, they could have stopped me. And if 199 other visionless decision makers, or just a handful of top-level Internet infrastructure providers, had possessed similar power and the will to use it, the web could have ended there and then. Today’s world and economy would be a very different place than it is, and not a better one.

Do not let anyone acquire that power today. The future network technologies that could be choked-off are, by definition, beyond imagining by all but the few people who will be imagining them now and in the years to come. The importance of any one of them might be as world changing as was the World-Wide Web. Nobody should be in a position to hold a kill switch on any of them, or be able to confine them to low-bandwidth ghettos in which they may stagnate and die. The Internet Service Providers arguing against pure network neutrality, whether they admit it, or even realize it, are arguing that they should have such kill switches, or the ability to lock technologies into ghettos to whither and die. Nobody is gifted with the insight and vision necessary to pass judgement on every new network-based technology that will ever come along, so nobody should have that power, in whole or even in part.

Well, that’s my perspective on the issue, anyway. And, needless to say, the “visionless” quality of the decision makers referenced here turned out to be a temporary condition. They, too, embraced the World-Wide Web long before most people had ever heard of it.

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