This was originally posted to Facebook this morning. I guess I forgot that I had a blog for a minute.
Everyone is freaking out about Net Neutrality. It’s a pretty big deal, so I understand.
People are sharing this picture of internet pricing in Portugal and saying that Portugal doesn’t have Net Neutrality. (www.businessinsider.com/net-neutrality-portugal-how-america…) Portugal DOES have Net Neutrality, though. It’s just that they have found loopholes to get around bits of it. Does anyone think our ISPs are above lobbying for loopholes?
I did some very cursory searching and I was not able to find an real apples-to-apples comparison between countries with and without Net Neutrality. Only China and Russia seem to be without Net Neutrality and the internet in both countries is very, very not neutral because of the government. (https://www.thisisnetneutrality.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality)
Although I think having pricing tiers for more bandwidth is annoying and I don’t want to pay more just so I can enjoy Netflix, that isn’t a sufficient argument for me to support Net Neutrality (NN). Revenue management via price discrimination is something we accept in many, many contexts and it can be annoying, but it’s ultimately a good means of managing scarce resources in a free market and it usually results in overall lower prices. Take a look at the history of airline ticket price regulation and you get a good picture of what bad price controls can really do. (TLDR: Prices fell over 50% in 30 years post-deregulation of those prices.)
NN advocates say, though, that bandwidth is not truly scarce in the same way that seats on an airplane are scarce. I would counter that by simply saying that the difference is one of scale, not of kind. The incremental cost of one hundred users streaming Netflix all at once is not that big to an ISP, yes, but that’s akin one passenger on an airplane carrying an infant with them on a flight. No big deal. But if one passenger tried to bring their adult child, that would be a big deal… just as if a million people all streamed Netflix at once. Adding bandwidth to a network can often be a time-consuming and expensive process. So, there really is an element of scarcity at play in considering bandwidth and network capacity.
I think people should also recall that we only got NN in 2015. The thing that I find MOST obnoxious from that time is that carriers were not transparent about the throttling they were doing. They hid their practices from their customers and I would argue that constitutes fraud… not a failure of neutrality.
Another argument that I’ve heard made in favor of NN is that it means ISPs could pick winners and losers of free speech. They could, theoretically, block or throttle traffic to destinations that they deem offensive. At the moment, I don’t think that’s a real problem for anyone but nazis and the extreme right-wing, which is our bogeyman du jour. (I don’t agree with those people, but I am disturbed by the number of people calling for them to be blocked by platforms like Google and Facebook. That IS the prerogative of those companies, but that power is a double-edged sword and I’d really rather they not wade into picking ideological winners and losers. What if they start blocking me?)
It seems like a greater concern that these companies would ease/block traffic according to their business partnerships. What if Walmart makes a partnership with Comcast and when I type in amazon.com they inject a pop-up asking me to go to walmart.com instead? And if I say ‘no’ and try to go to Amazon, they make it REALLY slow? That would suck.
I do not like for the government to interfere with trade at all. I think they should vigorously prosecute fraud and other such criminal activity but otherwise leave consensual trade practices — including price discrimination — alone.
Here’s the problem, though: The government is already involved in regulating the telcos and ISPs and cable providers. A LOT. In many cases, the government has granted them geographic monopolies in exchange for some regulations.
So, Net Neutrality is another rule on top of a mountain of rules that are already in place… which include rules that give these carriers a very deep foothold in our internet infrastructure.
Just look at the regulatory issues that Google has faced (No, municipal interference is not the only hurdle they’ve faced, but it is a significant one.) in trying to expand their Google Fiber offering.
I think there’s an analogous situation with immigration here.
Some oppose immigration because some immigrants add weight to our tax-funded social infrastructure via claims on various welfare programs. So, those people say we should stop immigration. Others say the problem isn’t with immigrants, but with those welfare programs. Those people say we should be more open with our immigration policy and address the problems with welfare.
I fall into the latter camp with that particular argument.
With Net Neutrality, some say until we address the unnaturally uncompetitive advantage that these companies have, we should have Net Neutrality. Others say that the issue is with those monopolies, then and not with the practice of price discrimination and so we don’t need Net Neutrality.
I am slightly more sympathetic to the former argument there because unlike with immigration and welfare, the issues of Net Neutrality and the monopolies granted to the cable companies and telcos are closely related to one another.
I don’t see us getting rid of the controls our government has over our ISPs/telcos/cable companies and more than I can see the government getting rid of welfare programs. The thing with regulations and controls like this is that for as much fuss goes into enacting them, they almost never really go away. Did you know we STILL have major parts of the Patriot Act still going? Congress even renewed parts of that beast in 2015. So, yeah.
So, the question becomes one of how to make the best of an already bad situation.
I hate the very idea of Net Neutrality so much. It goes against not only my moral and political ideals, but my understanding of economics and business. I hate how so many of the arguments in favor of it rely on appeals to my individual interests as a consumer (“You’ll pay more!”) rather than appealing to my sense of fair play for everyone involved — including the ISPs. And I really don’t like how so many people conflate state power and economic power.
But Net Neutrality may be the best way to move forward until we can start to address the more fundamental problems with the way our government is involved in these businesses.
I’m not 100% certain and I can see how thoughtful people who start with the same basic premises that I have could arrive at different conclusions here.