But in other ways, comparisons between the Internet and mobile phone networks are inaccurate. For one thing, mobile phone networks lack a common platform, such as the Web browser on a PC, Mac, or Linux machine, to which content can be delivered; instead, hundreds of handsets run a half-dozen incompatible operating systems. And government-imposed decency standards for data transmitted over the airways mean mobile phone companies are obliged to screen and filter data traffic, while Internet routers can let it pass through regardless of content.
“James Glass,” when contacted by Technology Review, acknowledged important differences between the Internet and cellular systems. (Glass asked to be identified only by his pseudonym in this piece, to avoid possible retribution by cellular carriers.) “People want to draw distinctions between the two networks, and that’s fine,” he says. “But the main thrust of my argument – that the owners of networks want to maximize short-term profits and don’t really care about anything that doesn’t help them with the profits – stands.”
To back up his point, Glass offers his own historical analogy. In the 1950s, he notes, “It was illegal to attach anything to the phone network that wasn’t owned by AT&T. So third parties couldn’t make any devices that attached to the phone system.” AT&T’s control slowed the development of the telephone and computer industries, Glass argues. “Notably, they used their power to make it difficult for anyone to make a good modem,” he says. “How much did this set back the development of the Internet? We don’t know. Possibly years. It definitely made things more expensive for the consumer, which meant that fewer people tried to use them, which meant that fewer people tried to innovate.”
Ironically, innovation is also cited by the telecommunications industry as an argument for abandoning net neutrality. Industry leaders say tiered pricing of Internet services would give them more incentive to innovate, introduce new services, and complete the broadband Internet infrastructure by running fiber-optic cables into more homes.
However, compared with the computing industry, telecoms invest little money in actual research and development. Here, again, history is instructive, say Princeton’s Starr and others. “Even in its heyday, [Western Union] also devoted little to research,” Starr says. The incumbents in the telecommunications business “invest more in politics than in technology – indeed, they are downright frightened by innovation, whose ultimate effects they can’t control.”
The most important effect of net neutrality has been to ensure an “even playing field,” says Craig Aaron, communications director at the Free Press in Washington, DC, which hosts the net-neutrality advocacy site SaveTheInternet.com. “Most of the big ideas on the Internet haven’t come from the telecom companies; they’ve come from the garage.”
Indeed, it is safe to say that nothing resembling today’s Internet economy could have arisen under the Western Union regime in the 19th century or the old AT&T monopoly in the 20th century. And that’s the main reason net neutrality should be preserved, says Aaron. “It’s less about what happens to Google and Amazon and eBay – they are big enough they could buy themselves a spot in the fast lane. The problem is, where do we get the next Google, the next eBay, the next blogging revolution?”