(New York) Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker and John Lilly are responsible for a great product — Firefox, the Mac version of which has been my default browser for three years. But when it comes to federal Internet regulation, Ms. Baker and Mr. Lilly seem to have fallen into the classic “Steve Case” trap.
Back in the 1990s, Case led America Online when it was the Net’s online Colossus. But he let a certain starry eyed, high-ranking executive talk him into becoming the ISP point person on the cable open access debate then raging at the FCC. But at the same time Case was demanding that the FCC regulate cable access, COO Bob Pittman was negotiating to merge with TimeWarner. Oops. The resulting confusion delayed the companies’ merger and underscored how confused its new corporate mission had become.
Hard as it is to believe, just ten years ago, the phrase “AOL stock options” was the stuff of retirement dreams, not a punch line.
Back to Mozilla’s Baker and Lilly. In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, they urge the FCC to regulate “neutrality” over the Net. But by placing their own company as the reason for new regulation, they actually underscore regulation’s true problem. To see why, look at three common types of downloads:
- Not time-sensitive. When you click on a website’s .exe or .dmg download link, there’s no real difference to you whether it downloads in 15 seconds or 20 seconds.
- Partially time-sensitive. Some applications (e.g., file-sharing programs) require a download to be completed within a certain time. But the data transmission doesn’t have to be constant. In other words, if a file needs to be downloaded in a minute, there’s no downside if half the data is downloaded in the first 10 seconds, while the remaining half is stretched over the other 50 seconds.
- Time- and latency-sensitive. This is the Big Enchilada. For the web’s biggest new apps (primarily movie streams, IPTV and VoIP), you not only need rapid service but also constancy of transmission speed! The scenario in the one-minute download above won’t work with a call or an HD stream because you not only need a high average speed, you also need a constant speed.
But under Lilly’s and Baker’s theory, the HD stream will only transmit as fast as the Mozilla download — even if the customer is willing to pay more! This is a totally nonsensical view of the Internet. Essentially, Lilly and Baker are trying to expand a regulatory structure meant for dial-up modems to tomorrow’s high-speed systems. Yes, that protects their own turf but it shuts off one of the most obvious ways the country has to finance the broadband build-out.
Lilly and Baker should stick to improving their browser, rather than becoming enmeshed in a nasty policy fight that doesn’t even involve their company. That’s some advice that Steve Case probably wished he’d followed.