Crowdsourcing regulation

The network neutrality bill amendment, currently heading towards its legislative fate, really has firebrands in a largely polarized battle fired-up. This post describes the issue of network neutrality first so that it can discuss some interesting, views in repsonse to it.

Since the inception of the internet, both the freedom of information on it and its own success have relied on what is referred to as 'network neutrality'. In non-technical terms, network neutrality means that information flowing between computers is treated equally (ceteris paribus, without traffic jams).* For some, the telecommuiations restructuring bill is a threat because it would allow ISP providers to discriminate against (delay or block) connection to non-preferred websites. Others see the tactical advantage for the ISP companies as a market good because only those that most valued the fastest service would receive it.

The latter is a purely economic argument--descrimination in this instance is meant to prevent the over supply of a good connection to those who don't really appreciate it, which in theory is a waste of value/money. The internet structure is somewhat ideal, in that it allows most computers to connect at most times without hassel, reaching the data it was seeking and therefore producing an economic good of its own (which may be underestimated, and could out-weigh that in the preceeding argument).

Optimizing public access at no real extra cost sounds desirable, but drafting and enforcing a law to protect network neutrality would be extremely challenging (and potentially costly). It is hard to tell when a provider is purposefully discriminating internet access versus accidentally doing so versus dealing with a technical glitch.

Skpe (an online phone service, voip) is especially sensitive to delays in connection because it requires constant streamin. Tom Evslin sees this as an opporuntity to measure disconnects and monitor uneven distribution of internet service (via
BuzzMachine). Aggregating just 1% of the voluntarily-provided Skype user data would provide very useful data.

An excellent idea, but BuzzMachine goes one step further, too, by suggesting that using convenient widget technologies allows this method of public regulation to scale efficiently in a number of areas. For example, college applicants could donate their personal stats and help others identify how admissions committees are really determining acceptance/rejection and scholarhip decisions.

One can imagine no end of ways to enable such large-scale distributed reporting. Some services are trying to get people to report gas prices. Jay talked about surveying prescription drug prices across the country...We could all log out calls to customer service of certain companies — what gets fixed and what doesn’t and how long it takes. We could report and compare how much our local government officials are paid and spend: Every citizen is a reporter. Imagine the possibilities.
I like it. That's a smart system of democratic regulation---one might reapply the net lingo, and call it crowdsourcing regulation.

As for the fate of net neutrality, it's awaiting a senate floor vote. I am for its intent but doubt it's means; then this is really a perfect for the application of the least harm principle based on rational expectations.

In the end, I think outright discrimination is fundementally more harmful (to individuals, economically, for the future of the internet---however you measure it) than sloppy-soft legislation. If the legislation is effectively unenforceable, it will do no active harm. If it attempts to regulate inefficiently, it will unenvelly distribute justice to discriminators---which would might occassionally be unfair to a few companies rather than a habitual hamper to thousands of people daily.

*[For a straight-forward explination of the nuts and blots of network neutrality (and the potential benefits and costs of regulating it), turn to a paper by Freedom to Tinker.]