It seems that lately, wherever you look, someone is talking about net neutrality. There are a lot of arguments going around supporting the issue: “Free speech could suffer! Look what happened in Egypt! A free and open internet is necessary for such a situation!” “These ISPs are monopolies and they need to be regulated! “The ISPs are too big, and you can’t compete with them!” On top of that, there are articles going around like “Net Neutrality: A Brief History of Violations“, listing situations that have taken place where it’s claimed that net neutrality was violated.
I wanted to take a moment to discuss these arguments honestly, and the list of net neutrality violations honestly, but I first want to state: While my arguments are against net neutrality, I do not take positions against the sentiments these arguments are rooted in. I do not support the companies in the above-posted list acting in ways that hurt customers.
Now, let’s look at these arguments one by one.
“Free speech will suffer without net neutrality”
I’m not entirely sure what people think ISPs will do that will limit the freedoms of speech, as I’ve not heard any anticipated methods mentioned, but I can say confidently that free speech is under attack, and has been, regardless of any net neutrality regulations. For example, the San Diego Tribune published a list in August of 2017, showing a large-scale effort by private, online businesses to crack down on white supremacist outlets, accounts, and channels. While most will agree that the opinions of white supremacists are opinions they do not share or agree with at all, it doesn’t change the fact that companies are censoring opinions they do not like by shutting them down or disabling them.
I’ve heard the situation in Egypt mentioned multiple times as well, and it’s important to point out that while the revolution may have begun on the internet, the people fought against the Egyptian government, who shut down access to social media when the protests heated up. I do not consider this situation to be a glaring example of why we need net neutrality, I actually consider it to be quite the opposite. If the internet really is such a powerful tool for political change, placing regulation of it in the hands of the government seems counter-productive.
“These ISPs are monopolies, and they need to be regulated”
The big situation that’s pointed to is the kerfuffle between Netflix and Comcast in 2014. Unfortunately, this situation realistically has little at all to do with “net neutrality.” Due to the way their CDN network works, it’s in Netflix’s best interest to seek deals that directly connect with broadband providers, as it provides their users with faster video delivery at higher quality. The issue comes in when you consider the ratio of data that’s being shared in this relationship. The bandwidth needed to stream or download the video is much more than is needed to request the video. Due to this ratio, Comcast’s network struggled to keep up in high usage areas. The internet is just a network of packets of information. The more packets, the more clogged this network can get. The popularity of Netflix caught Comcast off guard, and their network wasn’t prepared for it and bogged down in the face of the traffic. As a result, Comcast needed to add more ports, which costs money, and [Comcast] charged Netflix “Interconnection Fees.” The CEO of Netflix responded to these fees by pleading to the FCC that he essentially shouldn’t have to pay interconnection fees. As best I can tell this is a situation dealing with agreements between two companies, and sure, Comcast should have been more prepared before taking on an agreement with Netflix, but that’s still not a situation concerned with net neutrality.
“The ISPs are too big, and you can’t compete with them.”
This one is interesting in that, it’s absolutely correct. However, using net neutrality to solve this problem is a classic case of trying to solve the symptom without addressing the cure. Yes, it is very expensive to run lines to homes, however, it’s not impossible. The larger problem lies in trying to run the lines in the first place. The most expensive part? Litigating the ability to share real estate on telephone poles with companies like AT&T and Comcast. This privilege granted to the ISP’s is granted by local government regulations. Thanks to these regulations, Google Fiber was only able to upgrade 33 of 88,000 telephone poles in Nashville. And when they did win the ability to upgrade poles? They are sued relentlessly by the companies they share wire space with. The more critical mechanism in play that is keeping the internet provider market from being more competitive is the very mechanism that is being advocated to regulate the internet. Making the ISP market more competitive is absolutely the best solution to this issue. Even the mention of Google Fiber triggered a wave of benefits for consumers from the traditional ISP companies.
Now, let’s take a look at the aforementioned article on a “brief history of net neutrality violations.”
Reading this article, there are multiple situations presented, stated as acts against net neutrality. While the arguments are indeed enough to frustrate any reader, I fail to see how government regulation of an industry is the best answer to the problems listed. What is listed are situations where companies acted in ways that are unethical. Companies that act in unethical ways toward their customers should absolutely be made to face consequences of unethical business practices; be it by litigation, customer backlash, or any other method. But just as with gun laws and the drug war, just because regulations and rules exist, does not mean they will be followed. And if they’re not? We’ll have successfully given the government the power to regulate the internet, despite the fact that the very thing we gave the government power to regulate is still happening regardless.
Portugal. The argument.
There are arguments out there as well stating that the internet companies are going to break apart different mediums people use the internet for, and begin charging for them; a tier for gaming, a tier for social media, a tier for video streaming, etc. While I agree this practice seems completely absurd, I also find it to be non-existent at the moment. I’m not sure this kind of situation has ever existed or been mentioned as a possibility by the ISPs involved in the net neutrality issue. Before you start getting hot and bothered about this tweet:
…we should clear up a few things. For starters, Portugal does have net neutrality. Second, the service carrier, MEO, actually offers many packages for their customers. The option to have a full and unlimited plan is available. However, if a user didn’t want full cell service, and only wanted to use messenger apps and a few social media apps, they could opt to only pay $2 a month and just get those services. In fact, the entire offering of services are displayed on the same plan page that’s pictured in the screenshot with the tweet. The situation isn’t at all what it’s made out to be from Ro Khanna’s tweet.
I am not against the sentiment or the passion that people feel when they speak of their support for net neutrality, just as I’m not against the sentiment of those who want to ban guns because they care about human life, or those who want to continue the drug war to try and keep bad substances and ugly situations from those who are better left unexposed to such things. I support their arguments that freedom of speech is important; I support their arguments that companies should be acting in ethical ways; I support the arguments that violations of ethical standards need to have the ability to be challenged; I, however, also feel that giving the government the power to regulate the internet is not the way to handle any of those concerns.
When having these discussions, we should also be asking ourselves: With the recent growing popularity in cryptocurrencies, a revolution praised for the financial freedom granted by a decentralized digital currency, is giving the government the power to regulate the internet really the best idea? And don’t forget, it was just back in the beginning of November when Senators were already advocating for more “vigorous oversight” by regulators to police social media websites.