(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

How Would You Like Your Network, Sir? Smart Or Stupid?

Net Neutrality is a somewhat misleading definition for the principles that, until today, have de facto ruled Internet based communications: access to the network should be open, at the same conditions, for every legally operating publisher or service provider. In other words, network operators should never block or slow down access to a website depending on the content of that website or who its owners are: the network should also be stupid, that is unable to distinguish the bits of a movie from those of an email, and move them around all at the same speed, leaving any decision on what to do with them to the user terminals.

This is not philosophy, completely detached from our world: once again, it impacts on our wallet directly, and our freedom. A world only made of smart networks is concretely and deeply different from one made only of stupid networks.

Smart Networks are those in which every channel is strictly monitored and regulated by very complex central equipment and policies. They are capable of services which are still impossible in other ways, because they are reliable. You get what you pay for. Inside a smart network you can call 911 and they will find you, because a Smart Network knows without uncertainties where you are calling from. If anybody tried to leave 1000 Viagra offers every day on your answering machine, he or she would go bankrupt, or to prison, very quickly.

A Smart Network guarantees that you can call a doctor, or the hospital, even if all the teenagers in your neighborhood are downloading huge Playmates calendars just at that moment, or if the Superbowl is being broadcast, on the same wires, to the whole Internet. Because a Smart Network can tell the Superbowl or Playmate bits apart from the ones carrying your voice and force them to follow separate paths, without disturbing each other. And it always knows in advance which services are present and what their characteristics are, because only authorized, known services can live inside a Smart Network.

At the opposite end, in a Stupid Network anything goes. Even if complete anonymity is an utopia, you can easily achieve, or at least feel enough of it to be comfortable enough in most cases. If you invent a cheap, efficient software for online publishing, you can share or sell it online and million of other people will immediately be able to finally practice their freedom of speech for real: without permits to obtain, extremely complicated compliance tests, nothing. On a related note, have you ever realized that you can create and own how many email addresses you like, all different, for none or very little money, while the same thing is just impossible to do with phone numbers?

Please compare the cost, effort and legal hassles of starting a broadcast TV station with those, infinitely lower, of starting a web service like YouTube. Or the costs and efforts of getting space on commercial TV channels with broadcasting for free to the whole world your belief that your company is putting lives in danger, as an engineer did in August 2006.

All these are examples of the power of Stupid Networks. But the current Stupid Networks cannot guarantee that email will arrive instantly, or that your Bank website will always be reachable, or usable at the optimal speed, when you need to pay a bill. In a Stupid Network 911 may be unable to rescue you.

Only in a Smart Network you are sure you will get what you pay for. But the menu will be much smaller and above all, only very few chefs get to write it and fix the prices. This point of view is elaborated online in the Net Neutrality Frequently Answered Questions. In a Smart Network service providers and consumers are very clearly defined and kept separate.

We already have working examples of both situation. Fixed and Cellular phone networks, as well as Cable Tv are Smart. The current Internet is Stupid. The reason why “Net Neutrality” is a very hot topic these days is convergence: modifying the current Internet in such a way that any conceivable service can be moved to it. Running only one network for everything would immensely reduce costs, with theoretically great advantage for end users, not just stock holders: this, however, is only possible if the network is strictly regulated, er, Smart. This is why there is such a strong pressure to end Net Neutrality. Of course, the desire to prevent new service providers from entering the market also plays a significant role.

It is important, however, to make sure that if all networks have indeed to be merged and regulated in only one way, this doesn’t prevent new services and voices from appearing.

Please ask your Parliament Representative what he or she is doing about this issue. In December 2006, a bill against Net Neutrality was rejected by the U.S. Congress. In March 2007 some Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to take a stronger stand for net neutrality (which is) an “indispensable policy for the future of the Internet”. The general issue, however, is still open.