Not Really Neutral

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Net Neutrality, especially after President Obama made this statement earlier last week. “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life.”

Later that week Senator Ted Cruz wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post saying,

“In short, net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.”

Tom Wheeler. Image from The New Yorker.
Tom Wheeler. Image from The New Yorker.

But what exactly is “Net Neutrality?” Brian Yiannpolis, writing for Breitbart News, sums it up like this, “net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally.” Needless to say, Tom Wheeler, the head of the Federal Communications Commission, was livid at President Obama’s remarks thinking “he might be seen as a political pawn instead of as the head of an independent agency who is exercising his own judgment” as reported by Edward Wyatt of the New York Times. Fair enough seeing as Wheeler was tasked to ensure that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and corporations like Netflix and Amazon get along. This kind of political pressure, coupled with public pressure, will only keep Wheeler up tossing and turning all night.

What’s so bad about Net Neutrality that there’s such a huge debate about it? ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner have huge stakes in this debate. For one thing, corporations like Netflix and Amazon use a lot of data through their services and aren’t charged a dime for it. Under Net Neutrality, Netflix could use up 99% of the internet Comcast provides and they wouldn’t pay anything for that usage. ISPs want the FCC to give them power to make corporations like Netflix and Amazon pay extra for “fast lane access,” or essentially, pay for how much they use in a certain providers plan. If Netflix pays for more access, their videos will stream faster than say Amazon Prime’s if they don’t pay.

All this to say, both sides have money to lose. ISPs could lose money if they allow corporations to continue using their cables without a fee and corporations could lose money if they have to pay for a “fast lane” in order to ensure their streaming services get to their customers during peak congestion hours.

But there’s a little misconception when it comes to “fast lanes.” Marguerite Reardon writes for CNET saying,

“There are some potential benefits. Let’s say Netflix paid for priority on the Verizon broadband network. This means that when the network is congested, Netflix video traffic will get priority. It will move more quickly through the network than other services that have not paid for priority.”

Symbolic internet fast lanes. Image rom Techno Buffalo.
Symbolic internet fast lanes. Image from Techno Buffalo.

She also warns that, “depending on how congested the connection is, it could mean other packets get stuck in traffic a bit longer.”

So a “fast lane” has some potential benefits. Yet most would argue that ISPs would regulate corporations and how fast they get to the consumers. ISPs should be able to pick winners and losers. Under Net Neutrality the federal government would provide oversight over ISPs to ensure they are abiding by the rules.

Wait, stop.

You want the federal government, President Obama, the one that picks winners and losers in the marketplace for energy services turning offshore drilling, coal, and shale oil into losers while attempting to turn solar, wind, and other renewables into winners, the one that created the healthcare nightmare, the one that can’t balance the budget, to oversee private sector corporations?

Do we really need more government regulation in an already over-regulated America?

Consider this: ISPs don’t have the power to pick winners and losers, you do. Jeffery Dorfman writing for Forbes says,

“Consumers decide what products and services are successful because we adopt them. If an ISP blocks Netflix because of the bandwidth it requires, consumers who want Netflix will take their business elsewhere. If enough people do so, the ISP will have to change policies or go out of business.”

This is basic free market thinking. Yiannpolis continues in his Breitbart article that, “maintaining the physical infrastructure of the internet is immensely costly.” Without money to maintain that infrastructure we’ll have a much bigger problem on our hands than a slow buffering Netflix video courtesy of Net Neutrality. Government regulation of the Internet as a utility will be costly to competition. Joshua Steimie for Forbes writes,

“I don’t like how much power the telecoms have. But the reason they’re big and powerful isn’t because there is a lack of government regulation, but because of it. Government regulations are written by large corporate interests which collude with officials in government.”

If I want faster Netflix connections and Netflix is paying through Comcast to have that, I’ll switch to Comcast. If Verizon has a lower rate for fast Netflix streaming I’ll switch to Verizon. That’s the beauty of the free market. This encourages competition and variety among ISPs and corporations, it doesn’t stifle it. Dorfman praises the consumer in their ability to pick and choose how they can connect to the internet. Dorfman concludes, “The problem with government regulation of the Internet is that by the time the government studies how it works and what is needed, technology has moved on.”

John Oliver misses the big picture. Image from Hit Flix.
John Oliver misses the big picture. Image from Hit Flix.

Lurking underneath John Oliver’s satire is a misconception about the entire issue. The issue isn’t whether all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally but whether the Internet should be considered a “telecommunications service.” If it is, the switch from a Title I “information service,” to a Title II “telecommunications service” comes with over 100 pages of government regulation as outlined in the Communications Act of 1934 and Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Companies like Google have strictly avoided using telephony because of the government regulation involved with being classified as a telecommunications service. The Internet being classified as a Title II comes with government regulation that will end up hurting the consumer more than big corporations.

In the end, Net Neutrality isn’t as neutral as we thought.

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