The pitch for this new product is simple:
The Internet is the most important infrastructure we've ever created, so we mustn't neglect it. We need to build infrastructure for fast, pervasive and inclusive connectivity. We need to invest.
And where should the money come from? It's obvious. Those who use today's infrastructure freely for their commercial gain should pay for the privilege. Blockbuster paid for its own video rental shops, so why shouldn't Netflix pay to deliver its products down our pipes?
For-profit companies cannot expect a free ride. They pay. We all benefit.
So, are you buying ZiL Lane 2.0?
Net neutrality and ZiL Lanes
Net neutrality is a simple principle integral to the original design of the Internet and, to many minds including mine, absolutely essential to it. The principle asserts that the network will not prioritise – and by inference discriminate – some traffic over other traffic based on where it's come from. Sure, we're all happy to prioritise traffic constituting a video feed over email because who cares if the email takes another tenth of a second to arrive, but we should not for example allow those who operate the Internet infrastructure to prioritise one party's video feed over another.
Because such discrimination, whether for commercial or political reasons, leads to a balkanization of the Internet. Such discrimination erodes the potential for creativity and innovation the Internet has catalysed to date. Take that Netflix example.
Netflix has been the biggest single source of Internet traffic in the US for nearly two years, and it has just agreed to pay Comcast to improve its reach into the living rooms of the nation. The ISPs are effectively selling ZiL lanes, a term for the motorway lanes dedicated to government vehicles in the Soviet Union, and named after the manufacturer of the cars used to chauffeur the government officials (see the photo at the end of this post).
Imagine a taxi firm with access to ZiL lanes. Now consider starting a new taxi firm, or perhaps a firm based on a reinvention of that old model, without the capital demanded to gain access to those ZiL lanes. In effect, you have no chance. Game over before you've even started. By agreeing to pay for a ZiL lane, Netflix is erecting a massive capital intensive barrier to entry. By increasing the cost of doing business, Netflix cleverly reduces the likelihood of someone doing to them what they did to Blockbuster.
London accommodated Zil lanes for the London 2012 Olympics. Here's how one journalist described it in the Independent newspaper, and please read it with the Internet in mind!
... an excellent impression of what it might be like to live in a once-proud city that had suddenly come under the heel of a foreign invader, or perhaps some home-grown unelected, unaccountable political elite that had chosen to arrogate such power unto itself that ordinary citizens were no longer able to use the roads that they have bought and paid for with their taxes...
I'm a member of AccessNow, "an international human rights organisation premised on the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the Internet and other forms of technology." Check it out. And whatever you do, please be vocal with your political representatives about your desire to keep the Internet neutral.
For the decisions are being made now. In the US. In Europe. In Turkey and Ukraine and everywhere. An Internet with ZiL lanes is not the Internet we've known, not the Internet we've come to treasure. Raising monies in this way, purportedly to invest in Internet infrastructure, kills the very thing we're looking to nurture – I've called 'ZiL Lane 2.0' a killer app for a reason!
Free marketers often talk about the invisible hand directing the market; well if Internet access prices are too low to sustain investment, prices adjust and the providers get more efficient. In fact, that's the argument for free markets. Moreover, governments can also invest on behalf of citizens... after all, we'll all pay one way or another in the end, and I'd rather pay and maintain neutrality.
Or do you fancy a ride?...
Just found this excellent summary of the Netflix Comcast deal. It explains peering, which I felt was too technical for my post here.