For a long time I was terribly confused and conflicted about net neutrality (and embarrassed about being uncommitted on such a core issue in my industry). On the one hand, paying more for higher quality of service is only natural and leads to better provisioning of resources and less waste. HD movie watchers can pay for low latency streaming while email users need not. Treating their packets the same is madness, even worse legislating it so. On the other hand, many people I respect including economically literate ones vociferously argue for net neutrality. And Comcast “shaping” Skype traffic scores an 88 on the Ticketmaster scale of evil.
The key to understanding this debate is recognizing the difference between anonymity and egalitarianism. A mechanism is anonymous if the outcome does not depend on the identity of the players: two players who bid the same are treated equally. It doesn’t matter what their name, age, or wealth is, what company they represent, or how they plan to use the item — all that matters is what they bid. This is a good property for almost any public marketplace that ensures fair treatment, and one worth fighting for on the Internet. AppleT&T should not block Google Voice just because it’s a threat. In fact, even without legislation, it’s almost impossible to bar anonymous participation on the Internet. Service providers can, if forced to, encrypt their packets and hide their content, origin, and purpose, making them indistinguishable from others.
However no one would argue that everyone in a marketplace should receive identical resources. Players who bid more can and must be distinguished (for example, by winning more items) from players who bid less. So, while it’s wrong to discriminate based on identity, it’s absolutely essential to discriminate based on willingness to pay. That is the difference between an egalitarian lottery (silly) and an anonymous marketplace (good).
Somehow the net neutrality debate has confounded these two issues. I agree that any Internet constitution should include that all packets are equal regardless of their creator or purpose (charging $30 for “unlimited” data and in addition 30 cents per 160-char text message scores 72 on the ticketmasterindex). However, users or services who are willing to pay for it can and should receive higher quality. To do otherwise virtually guarantees wasting resources.
Update 2009/08/27: Mark Cuban (as always) says it well. [Via Tom Murphy]