Net Neutrality, RIP

Google and Verizon made big headlines when they announced they were teaming up to offer a framework for regulating broadband networks. On one hand, this isn't that big a deal since it's not binding and doesn't have the force of law behind it. On the other, it's a huge deal since it marks the end of the so-called "net neutrality" debate.

And for that we should all offer hearty thanks.

As a major network provider, Verizon had never been keen on proposed net neutrality rules that would regulate its broadband services. Google, meanwhile, had been one of the biggest backers of net neutrality regulations. They wanted to make sure that no other companies could interfere with their relationship with their users and believed net neutrality regulations would help.

But "net neutrality" was never more than a vague concept that meant totally different things to different people.

If two giants of the broadband age who had been at loggerheads on this issue can team up in an effort to craft policy, maybe that means we can bury "net neutrality" once and for all, and get back to where we should have been all along

Consider an analogy. Instead of network neutrality, imagine imposing "road neutrality" regulations on streets, boulevards and highways. To some people, this might mean getting rid of speed limits, traffic signals, stop signs and other measures that adjust the flow of traffic. This would rightly strike most people as silly. On the other hand, maybe it means permitting all cars on the roads even if they have a bad paint job or tacky rims that some people find in poor taste. This would rightly strike most people as sensible.

The same problem has plagued "net neutrality" from the start. Absent a coherent meaning for the concept, most debate participants have been arguing past each other for years.

If two giants of the broadband age who had been at loggerheads on this issue can team up in an effort to craft policy, maybe that means we can bury "net neutrality" once and for all, and get back to where we should have been all along --which is discussing the merits of various forms of regulation of broadband networks.

In recent years, regulators have taken a "light touch" approach to broadband, whether wired or wireless. And it's no coincidence that there's been an explosion of vibrant economic activity in both spheres, providing American consumers broad access and steady innovation with falling prices. In fact, this has been one of the few bright spots in today's economy.

But consumer advocates, some regulators at the Federal Communication Commission and several misguided companies wanted to change that, purportedly to protect consumers from Internet companies bent on taking advantage of them.

The fact is that the Internet is an incredibly robust and resilient platform, and any single firm's efforts to manipulate it in a patently unfair manner (or "destroy" it, in the apocalyptic term of net neutrality advocates) are doomed to fail, while blunt, heavy-handed, pre-emptive regulation by lawyers in Washington would be unnecessary and damaging to future development.

Google and Verizon both now get this. Their proposal would leave the "light touch" regulations in place, create a second-tier service that providers could pay for to make sure content-heavy services get to consumers quickly, and leave the wireless broadband market alone.

What should consumers make of all this? It's impossible to predict how this evolving ecosystem will develop. But either way, robust competition, even among just a handful of firms, will be our best protector. Google and Verizon teaming up may sound scary to some, but they are fighting Apple and AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and other providers who are beating each other's brains out in a competitive marketplace. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer recently announced the Redmond behemoth was going to elevate its efforts in wireless broadband too. Digital blood will flow as a result, and it will no doubt be messy and chaotic, but consumers will ultimately benefit.

So fear not the Veroogle agreement. A culture of cooperation among market participants is fine, provided that competition ensures consumer protection. This is one reason the future is bright for broadband.

Nick Schulz is the editor-in-chief of American.com and the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Norman Chan

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