Deputy U.S. CTO Andrew McLaughlin raised hackles just before Thanksgiving by suggesting to an audience at the University of Nebraska law school that moral equivalence exists between an Internet Service Provider blocking what a customer can see and/or do on the Internet and, say, China blacking out Google searches for "Falun Gong." AT&T was understandably a bit miffed at being compared to censorious and repressive regimes, but their response threatens to cloud McLaughlin's otherwise reasonable point. They shade a distinction which is going to hover over the whole net-neutrality debate going forward. So let's just get rid of it right now, shall we, so that we can move on to constructive conversations about how we can ensure free and open networks.
Network engineers will laugh at you when you suggest that networks have to be completely blind to the nature of the packets that travel across them. ISPs and engineers regularly massage traffic to get the Internet, which is a patchwork of networks held together by a fairly anemic protocol and, rumor is, some duct tape. Everyone agrees that network management isn't problematic. Everyone. So when AT&T's Jim Cicconi says that McLaughlin is outrageously comparing "the outright censorship decisions of a communist government to the network congestion decisions of an American ISP" (emphasis added), he's swapping out the real point of contention -- AT&T restricting customer access to certain services and Web sites -- for something far more defensible.