Net Neutrality: The Difference Between Benefit and Detriment

In a New York Times Room for Debate essay, Tim Wu sums it succinctly:

At Thursday’s F.C.C. public meeting, Chairman Tom Wheeler declared, with Lincolnesque firmness, that he would stand second to no one in his defense of net neutrality.

“I will not allow the asset of the open Internet to be compromised,” he said. Citing his experience as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, he said he knew personally what artificial barriers to entry look like. There will be no fast lane, he declared, “I don’t like the idea that the Internet could be divided into haves and have-nots, and I will work to make sure that does not happen.”

Disaster averted, as Wheeler declares the internet to be safe from the machinations of smacking down those will refuse to grease the tubes with green, so that everyone, anyone, can access the web on the same footing. But…

[T]here is a gap between his speeches and the actual rules. The rules say, for example, that “our proposed no-blocking rule would allow broadband providers … to negotiate terms of service individually” with content sites provided that they are commercially reasonable, and don’t harm Internet openness.

So no one, no one says Wheeler, will suffer the consequences of being disfavored.  But not all pigs are created equal, either.  While no burden will be tolerated, a cash-and-carry benefit is an entirely different matter.

Recall the debate about plea bargaining, where some call it the trial tax while others think of it as an opportunity to benefit from an option that lessens the harshness of the law.  Same coin, two sides.

As fun and fascinating as a war of words may be, the fact is that there are going to be winners and losers not-so-much-winners, based upon ability and willingness to pay. For the companies that maintain the tubes, this new revenue stream is absolutely necessary, as the cash machine of internet access didn’t make them filthy rich enough.

But if you think there’s net Nirvana now, bear in mind that we are already subject to Google’s algorithm, which puts one on either the first page of a search engine or page 12, internet Siberia.  Some would argue that this is a meritocracy, where the worthy rise to the front while the unworthy die a brutal and painful death in ignominy.  But if that was true, then SEO scammers would have to back to their old jobs at Dairy Queen.

There are two primary differences now that the FCC has stuck its nose in the mess and taken responsibility for making absolutely certain that “no artificial barriers to entry” thwart net neutrality.  The first is that it’s all about money, which makes the world go ’round.  There is nothing wrong with money, or the desire to make it.  We are a capitalist society, and businesses are not merely entitled, but compelled, to make money.

But this isn’t exactly a libertarian ideal.  It creates a detriment for those who can’t match the big money of extant industry, so that the position of existing profitable businesses can’t possibly be touched by upstarts.  It’s anti-competitive.  It deprives the public of choice, of newer businesses, perhaps more innovative ones, who will never be delivered to our doorstep as quickly as those who can pay.

The second difference is our old, and dear, friend, the government doing its best in our name to provide us with a more fabulous world.  Usually, this comes because a problem, real or imagined, arises and a choir sings the praises of a governmental solution.  Isn’t that why government exists, to create laws, rules, regulations to make our world better, even if only in the eyes of a narrow interest group?

Except the internet didn’t have a problem. Well, it has a million problems, but it also has the ability to work them out internally, with every user voting with his keyboard whether to accept or reject whatever idea is proposed.  Even if people can’t be trusted, because they’re wrong, they can’t be easily silenced despite the best efforts of self-appointed monitors of righteousness.

The government, on the other hand, has a lot more juice when it comes to controlling conduct than do the school marms.  But net neutrality doesn’t address a problem.  There is no valid complaint that the equal availability of access for anyone and everyone, big or small, rich or poor, good or evil, was destroying life as we know it.

It just wasn’t good for business. At least those businesses who had the cash to pay the toll for the fast lane.

And then there are those who may not be concerned about the money, but rather see the will of the people as the tyranny of the majority. From the Atlantic:

We like to think that the Internet is made of video streams and quips and cat photos, and it is. But it is also made of the waves of sorrow of a thousand million acts like the ones mentioned above, all spilling onto shore, erosive. You’ll try to tell me that these are incidental properties, mere exhaust, the necessary but piffling downsides of a force of greater good. But I don’t believe you anymore. The opposite is just as convincingly true: whatever virtue we drink online we squeeze from a bitter and ever-thickening rind of sorrow.

Someone’s feelings were hurt, so we must control the internet so it never happens again. Because waves of sorrow amidst the cat photos.

For us early adopters, who remember when a bad idea on the internet was crushed under the weight of the angry hoards, pitchforks and torches in hand, hurting feelings with abandon, but keeping the place remarkably tidy, the exertion of government control makes us want to cry.  This was the digital world, beyond the reach of mere secular government, too broad and powerful to be regulated into submission.  At least that’s what we hoped.

Perhaps there are still enough of us who remember the Halcyon days, who will refuse to adhere to the rules of grocery clerks with checklists, who will somehow facilitate those who can’t pay the tare to find their way online quickly enough to make their wealthier predecessors rue the day they agreed to sell their soul to Comcast.

FCC Chair Tom Wheeler can claim he remembers, but he’s full of shit.  Whether these rules are called a benefit or a detriment, they alter the equation for cash.  If the internet has any juice left in it, it will pry Wheeler’s greedy little fingers off the joy stick and force them into a part of his anatomy where they will do the most good.

11 comments on “Net Neutrality: The Difference Between Benefit and Detriment

  1. David

    A very accessible explanation of Net Neutrality was recently done by Vi Hart on YouTube; worth a look for those unfamiliar with the subject.

    [Ed. Note: Normally, I would not have allowed this comment, but since the video mocks the idea by calling it "innovation," it touched my heart.]

  2. bill

    The answer is elimination of broadband. 2600 baud modems and 100 free hours of AOL for the commoners, Compuserve for the rest.

  3. Fubar

    But it is also made of the waves of sorrow of a thousand million acts like the ones mentioned above, all spilling onto shore, erosive. You’ll try to tell me that these are incidental properties, mere exhaust, the necessary but piffling downsides of a force of greater good. But I don’t believe you anymore. The opposite is just as convincingly true: whatever virtue we drink online we squeeze from a bitter and ever-thickening rind of sorrow.

    I long ago conjectured that the formation of soi disant “media studies” departments portended an epidemic of incurable logorrhea marked by homeopathic dilution of meaning and promiscuous mixtures of inapposite metaphors.

    I’m not even a doctor but I have not yet been proved wrong. Now that even once decent technological institutions have become infected with this intractable disease, can I get a Nobel prize? I could use the money to supplement my diet of ever-thickening rinds.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sorry, no on the Nobel, but I may give you credit when I use “promiscuous mixtures of inapposite metaphors™.” Then again, I may not.

  4. Robert David Graham

    Net neutrality doesn’t mean anything. It just cloaks a transparently political concept in pretty language. It’s like how “abortion” is cloaked as either “pro-choice” (who is against choice?” and “pro-life” (who is against life?). What the term means is that the government should regulate the Internet like a utility, in the same way that it regulates telephone service, electricity, water, and so on.

    The problem with such regulation is that it kills innovation. That’s what people remember from the early 1990s — the success of the Internet against competing telcom interests despite the best effort of government regulators to suppress it.

    The problem is that every time somebody comes up with a successful innovation, activists are going to lobby the government to suppress that innovation in the name of “neutrality”. That’s because all innovations favor somebody.

    NetFlix proposes a model of the Internet that just doesn’t work. TV transmissions work because when 100 million households sit down to dinner to watch video after dinner, they don’t receive 100 million streams. Instead, they watch “broadcast”, where one stream is shared by millions of households. To make NetFlix work, we’d need 1000 times more bandwidth (and investment) than we have today. Who should pay for that?

    The question isn’t whether NetFlix or Comcast should pay, because they don’t have money. Instead, it’s NetFlix’s customers and Comcast’s customers who pay. The current situation is that the minority of Comcast’s customer use high-bandwidth services like NetFlix, and the majority effectively subsidize it. That’s because it’s really hard to actually charge customers by bandwidth — everybody is afraid of the risk that their computer will decide to download 1-gigabyte software update in the background socking them with a huge billion charge. So we are left with low-bandwidth customers subsidizing high-bandwidth customers.

    When NetFlix viewers are already “loss leaders” for Comcast, they have zero incentive in upgrading links to make NetFlix faster. Every time Comcast upgrades a link with NetFlix, low bandwidth customers call in and complain that suddenly their Facebook is slower. The only option for any business is to push back and find some way to charge the freeloading high-bandwidth customers for the costs they incur — and Comcast does that by charging NetFlix directly.

    I’m a freeloading Comcast/NetFlix customer. I know that I’m freeloading. I have no problem paying NetFlix more and Comcast less for the bandwidth I consume.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t pay Netflix or Comcast anything. Eat your heart out.

      Your comparison of “net neutrality” as a spin phrase with pro-choice and pro-life strikes me as off base. The latter are just opposite spins of the issue, while there is a substantive basis for the phrase “net neutrality.”

      While I can appreciate that it can be a zero-sum game, the internet can decide winners and losers for itself (and maybe poorly, but hey, that’s humans) if the playing field is level. Much as there are flaws with all ideas, do you really think either government micromanagement or cash-and-carry internet will prove best? Or have you just given up on it?

  5. Robert David Graham

    There is no “substantive basis” for “net neutrality”. That’s entirely my point.

    Large companies pay for the “end caps” you see in grocery stores. OMG, Food Neutrality!!! This unfairly competes against the small local farmer!!! What’s more important than food????

    1. SHG Post author

      Greenfield’s Law: The value of an argument is in direct inverse proportion to the number of needless punctuation marks used.

  6. Christopher Best

    “If the internet has any juice left in it, it will pry Wheeler’s greedy little fingers off the joy stick and force them into a part of his anatomy where they will do the most good.”

    I… Wow.

    Could we have another button on the website next to the “Click here if this post hurt your feelings”? One for “Buy the Author a Beer”?

    Thanks.

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