Network Neutrality: About Corruption, not Efficiency

June 15, 2008

The debate over network neutrality is just a rehash of the age-old debate between top-down and bottom-up design.  Bottom-up invariably wins.  And it will here too.

The technical critics of network neutrality typically emphasize how it comes at a cost in theoretical efficiency.  The same was said in defense of communism.  And waterfall design.  All were wrong.

Or, rather, they were right in the land of theory, where code compiles on first try and rivers run with pure gold.  In this magical land of brilliant architects and benevolent dictators, top-down planning works.

But in our world, the risk of error, mis-management, and outright abuse is way, way too high.  The theoretical capabilities of top-down design are — more often than not — lost to the practical realities of waste, incompetence, and corruption.

Thus the whole meta-debate obscures the broader point: we shouldn’t be designing for maximum efficiency.  We should be designing for minimal corruptability.  Once that’s in place, we can figure out the rest.  But if that’s not in place, then nothing else matters because even the best design will eventually be corrupted.

So back to the topic at hand: network neutrality does forbid certain types of filtering that could in theory improve certain types of applications.  In particular, VoIP and HDTV streaming are always trumped out.  Without network neutrality, we cannot perfect these systems — the latency and jitter are just too high!

But this technical point is not only wrong (Skype already does VoIP, and Akamai already does HDTV streaming), it mistakenly (or disingenuously?) ignores the far more serious potential for corruption that such filtering enables.

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