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Whose Hands Off the Net?

The rallying cry du jour of the anti-Net neutrality forces is, "Don’t regulate the Internet." Nice thought, but it’s a bit like saying "Don’t regulate the Pacific Coast Highway." The Net is already regulated in a host of ways by a variety of bodies. At one extreme are states like China, which try to dictate where users go in cyberspace, and which use the Net as a convenient place to gather evidence against disfavored people. At the other extreme is Sealand, a former oil rig in the North Sea that claims (with some success) to be a sovereign state. HavenCo, a hosting operation based at Sealand, holds itself out as a free zone to violate copyrights, patents, libel laws and other restrictions on speech (snuff films, perhaps?). But even HavenCo says it does not welcome spammers, hackers or child pornographers.

And no matter where you are, you can’t put up a Web site whose name ends in .xxx. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers doesn’t recognize that domain, so ISPs won’t, either.

In the U.S. of A., there are all sorts of things you can’t do online, at least not legally. The Federal Communications Commission stopped a telco-owned ISP from blocking a competitor’s VOIP service. The Federal Trade Commission has gone after spammers and Web-based scammers. The Justice Department has prosecuted warez groups, online copyright infringers and hackers. RIAA and MPAA have sued thousands of people for sharing copyrighted songs and movies on P2P networks.

The operative question on Net Neutrality isn’t whether to regulate the Internet. That one’s been decided. The issue today is how much to regulate.

That’s a long preamble to a comment about the Washington Post’s editorial today on Net neutrality. The Post’s editorial board urged Congress not to burden the Net with "preemptive regulation." I agree, but it doesn’t mean all regulation is going to burden network operators or stifle their innovation. The middle ground here, IMHO, is to allow network operators to prioritize traffic for a fee without discriminating unfairly among competitors, or against users who don’t pay for prioritization. If they want to charge $X per kilobyte to prioritize streaming video, they should be able to do so as long as everyone who streams video can access the service for the same price, and those who don’t pay aren’t penalized. That way the market, not network operators, will pick winners and losers online. I’d also argue for eliminating these rules as soon as you had four or more broadband networks in a community competing for residential customers.

The photo of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin floating the background of this post is courtesy of the FCC.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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