Why you should care about net neutrality

Every tech project you build at work and movie you watch at home depends on it

Arguments about net neutrality tend to sound a lot like the ones about privacy, the technological literacy gap and other arguments about social issues that happen to hinge on technology.

It's easy to ignore them in your work life because they're not really relevant there, whether you care about them personally or not. A lot of companies are doing just that.

Net neutrality is different than the technology gap between rich and poor, personal privacy, Internet censorship, AstroTurf politics and all the other big social issues that play out online or use the Internet as their primary medium.

Net neutrality directly affects the way your entire corporate IT infrastructure will work in the future and how much control your company will have over the technology for which it pays.

Carriers are doing nothing to make the process of discussion any quicker, especially after the FCC found they are already violating neutrality regularly.

There are a lot of arguments that the open Internet should have some base level of service and a guarantee of some level of neutrality, but that businesses should rely on premium connections for which they'd pay and on which they could define terms.

Carriers don't like it, but the argument has some validity. It ignores the portion of traffic that has to cross the open Internet and the rights of individuals and companies that can't afford premium networks.

The most basic net neutrality question -- framed by ISPs and carriers -- is whether Internet service providers have the right to limit the volume of illegal content file-sharers, BitTorrent sites and other abusers of corporate rights and property are allowed to send across their portion of the open Internet.

It's hard to argue against those limits without defending obvious copyright infringement and data theft.

The result of giving ISPs and carriers the right to block or throttle that traffic, though, is to give them clear permission to filter Internet traffic based on how much they like or dislike the traffic, the sender or receiver.

National governments claim that right, but Western constitutions limit their ability to exercise it and an awful lot of people and companies seem to dislike it when countries like China exercise it effectively.

Letting ISPs or carriers decide what is or is not legitimate traffic gives each of them individually the right to throttle everyone's bandwidth, no matter how much the users are paying for it or what performance guarantees are in place, to optimize the carriers' own networks or financial statements.

BitTorrent users are the first victims, but close behind will be companies that find solid business uses for apps that send increasing volumes of video, chat, audio, virtual-desktop or streaming-application traffic across the 'net.

Without guarantees of neutrality, carriers won't have to expand their pipes to accommodate that traffic. They can just throttle it back and charge more, making more money for lower performance and blaming every other backbone provider on the Internet for being the problem.

Think the carriers wouldn't do that?

Fox and Cablevision have already blocked each other's traffic from Hulu.com. Google and Verizon also double-teamed Comcast.

Usually blocks are aimed at specific kinds of traffic, but not necessarily. In 2007 Verizon Wireless blocked text messages based on their political content. Last year Verizon claimed it should be free to throttle wireless networks, ostensibly because of limited bandwidth.

Verizon is expanding wireless bandwidth as quickly as it can, though, and wireless (cell phone) networks use airwaves that are public property and which the carriers rent, making it more obvious profit-motivated companies shouldn't be able to shut out legal information at their own discretion, not less.

Most of the fight for net neutrality does smell of hemp and bare feet. And it's true that IT people are generally not comfortable weighing in on political issues in their professional capacity.

Net neutrality is anything but a nutty-crunchy, social-benefit issue with no impact on IT.

It's a critical issue for every business that expects to use the public or private Internet to do business -- whether that means e-tailing, online B2B, collaboration and remote-office integration, video and audio-conferencing, use of SAAS and Cloud resources connected through the 'net to the corporate infrastructure, or even heavy use of email that is occasionally time sensitive.

Give carriers the right to throttle traffic for their own reasons and you give the bully standing over you a big stick to help persuade you to bring more lunch money or a better sandwich next time.

When is the last time you were praised by users or the CFO for giving a primary supplier the right to refuse or degrade service with no apology, no compensation and very probably no acknowledgement that it's even happening.

It probably would not be a good idea to walk into the CFO's office in protest wear and Birkenstocks to make the case that a big corporation should defend net neutrality. But you should make the case.

Or if you can't, make sure the people who can know how to explain the risk to the legal staff and CFO.

It's not an abstract risk, future concern or generalized sense of discomfort about trends on the Internet. It's a direct and immediate threat to your ability to control the performance and infrastructure that already eat up a big chunk of your budget.

Eliminating it is a very big stick. And, no matter how reasonable they sound when they explain it, the people vying to pick up that stick are not your friends and would still not be if they were better armed.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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