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A Note On Net Neutrality For Techies

Lately I’ve been talking to some friends in technology circles about net neutrality. It has become clear to me that there is a good deal of confusion on one particular aspect of net neutrality that has been festering. The confusion centers on your ability to host applications.

Cable companies have repeatedly stated that they will not prohibit cable modem users from visiting the sites they want and running applications on the web consistent with your terms of service. That caveat has led a lot of people to confuse the current terms of service with the intent of net neutrality.

As an example, at the Personal Democracy Forum last year, a debate was held featuring opponents and proponents of net neut (you can listen to the net neutrality debate here). In the background a big screen ran an open chat with audience members allowed to comment about the proceedings. Many of the comments were along the line of:

Why should I believe you will allow me to run applications given that I can’t currently run an SMTP server.

It’s a valid question, but one that confuses the issue. Net Neutrality is not about forcing cable companies to allow you to host your own HTTP, FTP, or SMTP server on their network. That is now, and even under the most strident net neut proposal, would still be regulated by the terms of service for your connection. If you think you will be allowed to run an SMTP server on your home connection under a net neutrality regime, you’re wrong.

Broadband connections are regulated first by the company’s policies – chief among which is not allowing applications that degrade the connection of someone else on the network or applications that would attract traffic that impedes on others.

(This is the same reason the companies want to control their networks and charge large corporate consumers based on their users’ consumption of network resources – to prevent one person’s consumption of bandwidth from degrading someone else’s ability to view content, but that argument is lost in the current debate.)

Most companies restrict the ability to serve content to their business connections. I, for instance, have a business connection in my home so I can maintain applications like this and to provide a static IP. It costs me about $20 more per month, but I have full rights to run what I want.

For those who support net neutrality thinking that they’re going to be allowed to run apps like this on a home connection, you should reframe your thinking. Instead of supporting a bad policy under the misguided pursuit of apps, you should look into a business connection through your cable or phone company. You can do what you want to do right now (albeit for a few bucks more per month) without involving government in the equation.

(Disclaimer: While I work for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, this post should in no way be construed as an official position of the Association. Thoughts in this space are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the views of my employer.)

Written by Michael Turk