Like most government regulations, it’s unnecessary and counterproductive.
What is net neutrality?
Internet service providers (ISP’s) like Comcast, Verizon and others are the companies who bring the physical infrastructure of the Internet to the consumer – you. Technically, these providers are capable of discriminating among the types of communications on their networks, say, by allowing one website or type of service to travel faster on their networks than another.
This invokes a scary possibility. What if, in an effort to squash out Amazon’s instant streaming video, Netflix paid Comcast a large sum of money to discriminate in favor of Netflix’s video and give it more bandwidth on Comcast’s network than Amazon or other sites. The result would be crystal clear video on Netflix but endless buffering on Amazon for Comcast customers. In response, Amazon could pay off Verizon for preferential treatment on its network, giving Amazon users with Verizon internet a perfect experience and screwing over Netflix subscribers.
Some ISP’s that are also content providers could give their own data favorable treatment.
“Network neutrality” is a fancy way of stating the principle that ISP’s should treat all legal data traveling over their networks equally. Many consider it to be the “First Amendment of the Internet.” Mark Stanley of the Internet activist group, Demand Progress told the Guardian that, “Net neutrality is basically the principle that keeps the Internet open. Without it, big cable companies will be able to slow down certain websites and pick winners and losers on the Internet.”
Not really that scary
Here’s the thing—there’s never been a major move by ISP’s to do any of this. Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.
If they wanted, Comcast, Verizon and others could have been extorting insane sums of money from competing websites for years in exchange for advantages on their networks. But they know that’s not what consumers want.
In fact, in some of the very few cases where service providers violated the general principles of net neutrality, they quickly changed course after blowback from customers.
In 2007, the pro-choice group National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, also known as NARAL, was prevented by Verizon from getting a 5-digit short code with which to text supporters. Both sides of the political spectrum were outraged and Verizon quickly reversed its decision and gave NARAL their short code.
In 2012, AT&T decided that it would force its subscribers to purchase more expensive plans in order to use Facetime on iPhones. People got upset, and by mid-2013, the company announced it was changing that policy.
In a competitive ISP market, providers would never dare make the kinds of deals net neutrality doomsayers would have you believe will be the new norm. If one did, it would lose customers in droves. That’s the beauty of the free market.
Anyways, who are we to say these companies can’t commit organizational suicide? Nobody has a right to access one website at the same speed as another.
Additionally, forming net neutrality policy under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934—as its staunchest proponents would like—regulates ISP’s as common carriers, which brings with it more unintended consequences.
As ISP’s only have so much bandwidth they can send information over, they sometimes have to “drop packets,” which is essentially delaying the speed with which information gets to the consumer. During times of high traffic when the bandwidth is hogged, net neutrality would require the provider to drop equal numbers of packets from every user, whether those users are on a VOIP call or watching Netflix or checking their email.
The consequences of dropped packets, however, significantly differ depending on how you’re using the Internet. Someone just loading up their email or an article on Merion West may hardly notice that it takes a couple seconds longer for their page to appear, but someone on a Facetime call would certainly be upset if their when they hear nothing but garbled nonsense coming from the other end of the line.
This selective throttling, as Riley Flaherty of The Libertarian Republic points out, is also very important for rural Internet users:
“Rural ISPs can often only get very small amounts of bandwidth to distribute amongst many customers, meaning that if the customers want a usable Internet connection, their Netflix and other high bandwidth connections will be ‘throttled’ or slowed down. As ‘restrictive’ as this may sound, it is not the ability to watch Game of Thrones on Netflix or pirate Kim Kardashian’s sex tapes that has ability to connect otherwise uninformed people to a vast expanse of information and opinions. Users that otherwise have very slow or nonexistent Internet are more than happy to have a connection to the Internet, even if it means a few extra minutes of buffer time on Netflix. Instead of ensuring that people’s data isn’t ‘messed with,’ they [net neutrality proponents] will ensure that multitudes of people in rural areas within the U.S. will no longer have access to the Internet, and that the small ISPs which served them will now be put out of business, leaving them to wait for years with no Internet in the hope that a large corporate carrier starts servicing the area.”
Besides this issue, there are others, such as how to measure and enforce neutrality, as Columbia professor Steve Belloven pointed out.
While net neutrality is certainly a well-intentioned to protect the modern marvel that is the Internet, like most government regulations, it’s an unnecessary and counterproductive way for politicians to act like they’re looking out for the little guy.
They never really are.