Saturday, January 15, 2011

Net Neutrality in a Nutshell

The internet might be the most important invention the human race has ever come up with, and anything that could radically change the way the internet operates needs to be taken very seriously.  Most Americans are against net neutrality for the internet.  Most Americans do not know what net neutrality really is.

There are reasonable people who have differing views on net neutrality for perfectly logical reasons. The two individuals who had more to do with the creation of the internet than anyone else are Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn.  Cerf and Kahn designed the protocol (rules of the road) that the internet still uses to this day. They also disagree on the topic of net neutrality. If these two brilliant individuals disagree, then it is worth taking the time to discuss what net neutrality is and why the manufacturing sector should care about this topic.

What is net neutrality?  In a nutshell, when you pay for a level of service with your internet provider (2 megabits per second or 25 megabits per second as examples), that provider should treat every packet of information the same and not discriminate.  For example, your internet provider should not be looking at:

·      What type of content are you requesting or sending?
·      Where you are going on the internet or where did you come from?
·      What type of device are you using to access the internet — PC, Mac, cell phone, internet TV, Blu-Ray player, something else?
·      What type of packets you are sending or receiving?  For example, Skype, (using the internet as a video phone service), Netflix (watching movies over the internet), bit-torrent (moving lots of files on the internet), or any other type of service that can be identified.

This is where the term “neutrality” comes from in the term net neutrality.  Everything should be treated “neutral” or the same. 

This really requires an example to drive home this point.  Let’s not use the internet, but let’s use something we are all familiar with — a toll road. When you get on the toll road, you might pay more if you are going a farther distance. You might pay more if you are in a large tractor-trailer versus on a motorcycle. You might pay more if there is a fast lane that you want to use, vs. the standard traffic lanes.  That is how the internet operates today.

Here is a sign that you would not see on a toll road:

All Cars Going to McDonald’s Can Take Fast Lane #5

All Corvettes Can Take Fast Lane #11

All Trucks Carrying Home Depot Deliveries Can Take Fast Lane #16

Right now the question you are likely asking is, “Wait a second, if all cars pay the same fee, then why should those cars going to McDonald’s or all Corvettes get in the fast lane?”  You are also likely asking the question, “Why should it matter what is inside my truck? Why aren’t all trucks treated the same if they pay the same fee?”

The answer to those questions would simply be that the toll road operator has a business agreement with McDonald’s, GM or Home Depot.  If you feel that this is perfectly OK because it encourages business to be creative and you want government out of business, then you would be against net neutrality.  If you feel that this is simply not fair and you want internet providers to treat all cars and trucks the same, then you would be for net neutrality.  Reasonable people can and do disagree on this topic.

Those who are against net neutrality typically say, “Hey, it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  That is a perfectly logical statement. Those who are for net neutrality will say, “The reason the internet is not broken is because it has treated all packets the same and this will do nothing but create a caste system on the internet that will stifle creativity of small startups.”

What is my opinion?  I agree with Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the web) that net neutrality is extremely important.  While I don’t trust government when it comes to providing simple and clear regulation, I trust big business less when there is this much money at stake on the most important invention that man has ever created.

In the classic film “All the President’s Men”, the character Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward to “follow the money”. Those three words of advice are timeless when it comes to analyzing anything from simple to complex situations.  This advice certainly applies here.

While I believe it should be painfully obvious that this is critical to all aspects of business and society, it is important for manufacturing because the primary way to increase productivity in manufacturing will be with open protocols, such as MTConnect, that share information globally over the internet. Bottom line, It will be interesting to watch how net neutrality plays out.