Net neutrality you can believe in

18 Dec 2008

For most of October, just about every conversation I had with friends, colleagues and even total strangers I was supposed to interview about this technology or that inevitably included the question: 'Obama or McCain‾' And while I'm not in the business of discussing politics in a professional capacity, much less endorsing candidates, my standard response was this:
'Obama, because I could never bring myself to support a candidate who has never sent an email in his life.'

This usually got a laugh. I wasn't kidding, though. You can argue about economic fixes, free trade, national security and Iraq all you like, but I felt genuinely concerned about the prospect of an American president in the age of broadband Web 2.0 and ubiquitous mobility who freely admitted, as Senator John McCain did just six months ago, that he doesn't know how to use a computer, much less send an email. It's not something you can simply chalk up to age or generation gaps. My mom is older than Senator McCain, and she at least knows how to use LotusNotes. Why‾ She took classes. And she did so because she was willing to learn and understood it was important to know this stuff. For whatever reason, John McCain apparently didn't make the effort until after people started making fun of him for it.

Compare that to President-elect Barack Obama, who is already giving weekly addresses on YouTube and making headlines for being forced to give up his BlackBerry. He has a MacBook that he uses to video-chat with his kids when he's on the road. Which of these men is more in tune with the 21st century‾

Govt 2.0

Forget the YouTube addresses for a moment. During his campaign, Obama promised to create the position of chief technology officer for the US government. In theory, that not only means making sure the federal government has a decent (and secure) WAN, but also leveraging Web 2.0 apps to create a sort of social-networked wiki government where open meetings and public hearings are webcasted and viewers can post comments and provide live feedback. True, it probably won't make a scrap of difference in how legislation gets debated and passed, and there will be controversies over things like requiring registration to post and politicians deleting critical comments. Still, as visions of Govt 2.0 go, it's a start. Compared to the outgoing administration's penchant for hyper-secrecy, it's practically revolutionary.

In more practical terms, Obama's biggest potential impact on telecoms/IT - particularly for Asia - is in free trade and net neutrality. Free-market advocates are already suspicious about Obama and the Democrat-led Congress on both counts. I'm not sure about free trade, but they're right to be wary of Obama regarding the net neutrality issue. He's clearly in favor of it and is likely to support whatever net neutrality bill hits his desk.

That said, whether the concern is justified may depend on the content of the bill. I've written in this space before that there's a difference between shaping traffic to keep the network running smoothly and meeting SLAs - which service providers already do out of necessity - and doing it in a way that hurts the competition. As such, if we have to have laws enforcing net neutrality, the focus shouldn't be on preventing traffic-shaping, but ensuring that it's done as fairly and transparently as possible.

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