I've just read Cory Doctorow's impassioned new Guardian piece advocating net neutrality. I have a lot of respect for Cory's work at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but on this I think he is muddling the issues.
Under net neutrality Cory is conflating
- The principle that ISPs should not discriminate against websites on commercial (e.g. anticompetitive) or political grounds,
- The debate about internet censorship by governments, and
- The idea that ISPs should not be allowed to charge their subscribers according to how much they use the internet (metered broadband)
The problem with this kind of position is that it paints net neutrality as a take-it-or-leave-it package, and groups the proponents of each of these causes together in a cyber-libertarian, woolly-lefty category that is an easy target for opponents of any of the three. This makes for an ill-informed and overheated debate.
My point is not that Cory's second and third causes are less important, or that they are less defensible. It is just that their merits and demerits depend on different things:
- In the first case, the arguments are mainly about the importance of the internet economy and consumer rights, versus telcos' legitimate interests and their need for a business case if they are to invest in infrastructure
- In the second, the arguments are about freedom of expression versus (in the more defensible cases) governments' need to enforce laws concerning copyright, hate speech and child abuse
- In the third, the arguments are about encouraging people to use the internet versus ISPs' freedom to define their pricing strategies
Yes there are some overlaps: freedom of expression is part of the first two debates. But as I've argued in my primer on net neutrality, I think the debate on net neutrality should focus on the first group of issues as much as possible. These are far too important for their debate to get stuck on grounds that are largely irrelevant to them. (For an example of similar muddling from the opposite camp, see this).
(And no, I don't want to take a militant position on any of these three debates – not because I'm afraid to reveal my colours, but because my colours are not militant.)