January 27, 2014

Net neutrality and sponsored data — a middle course

Thanks to a court decision that overturned some existing regulations, network neutrality is back in the news. Most people think the key issue is whether

But I think some forms of charging can be OK — albeit not the ones currently being discussed — and so the question should instead be how the charges are designed.

When I wrote about network neutrality in 2006-7, the issue was mainly whether broadband providers would be allowed to ship different kinds of data at different speeds or reliability. Now the big controversy is whether mobile data providers should be allowed to accept “sponsorship” so as to have certain kinds of data not count against mobile data plan volume caps. Either way:

I think the anti-discrimination argument for network neutrality has much merit. But I also think there are some kinds of payment structure that could leave the playing field fairly level. Imagine, if you will, that:

Such a system is surely technologically feasible — indeed, it is at least as feasible as the online advertising networks that already exist. Further, it would be possible for the system to have nice features such as:

In such a setup, which discrimination fears would or would not be realized?

I have no great objections to extreme net neutrality; behemoth oligopolist telcos should be among the last companies to cry “Un-free markets, boo-hoo-sob!!” But as internet pipes are increasingly used for telephony, streaming media or even medical consultations, drawing quality-of-service distinctions could have a certain merit. And so, for reasons similar to those I outlined in 2007, I still lean toward the partial network neutrality described above.

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