Government Imposed Net Neutrality Would Choke the Net

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Fri, Jan 2 - 9:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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    Free Radical - Net Neutrality

    A constant challenge for those who seek to limit the size and scope of government is the common failure amongst the public to understand the difference between intentions and consequences. Although problematic for all aspects of life, this is a particularly pernicious problem in the realm of governance, where it is easy for the average American who sees little of what actually occurs in Washington DC to take an idealized view of the abilities of government and the motives of those who make up its workforce.

    A prime example of this problem is the debate over net neutrality. Most agree that it would be bad for the internet if the service providers (ISPs) that connect users to the internet arbitrarily blocked or throttled access to certain sites. The internet has thrived as a bastion of freedom, and no one who appreciates the vast economic and social benefits derived from its emergence wants that to change. Yet due to their misunderstanding of both the architecture of the internet and the government’s interest in it, it is those who claim most loudly to want to save the internet that have put it in jeopardy.

    By seeking to make the government arbiter of the net, agitators for regulation to enforce net neutrality would put responsibility for the net’s protection in the hands of those least capable of dealing with its complex and continuously evolving nature. To make matters worse, they would do so to fight off a largely imagined problem.

    The primary stated concern of the pro-regulation camp is that ISPs will abuse their positions to block or slow particular content. For instance, in Esquire’s fever dreams that includes slowing access to forums that might help those grieving for deceased loved ones and then soliciting account upgrades to restore speeds to normal. As hysterical as this imagined scenario is, it’s also not hard to see the legitimate problems should ISPs liberally pick high-speed winners and losers. So to protect against this hypothetical problem, they demand all data be treated equally. What their demand ignores is that internet data has never been equal, and that we should not want it to be if the goal is to keep the internet innovative and robust.

    Some data is simply more important than other data. Sometimes this is because the content is more important, such as a 9-1-1 call placed through a VoIP service versus a typical YouTube cat video. In other cases the difference is due to different user experiences inherent to particular mediums. A few seconds of delay in loading a page of text is less bothersome to the customer, in other words, than a constantly buffering video stream.

    Prioritization which recognizes varying degrees of data importance is not some future threat, it is current reality. ISPs already recognize that data importance varies for the reasons mentioned above and reacts accordingly. Netflix, despite seeking regulations to prohibit paid prioritization, is even now negotiating with ISPs to ensure their customers receive quality service. Yet we don’t see today the internet dystopia net neutrality agitators suggest is inevitable when data is treated unequally. Rather, it has been a positive for consumers who benefit through access to more dependable services, and could be a bigger boon still with a more certain regulatory environment.

    Generally, it wouldn’t much matter that consumers don’t entirely understand how the internet works. However, fear-monger from politicians and special interests make public ignorance a fertile ground to pad their power or advance special interests.

    For instance, content providers like YouTube and Netflix make a lot of money through bandwidth-heavy video distribution services. At peak hours these two companies alone can account for about half of all traffic. Unsurprisingly, they don’t want to pay for an equivalent share of bandwidth costs, preferring instead to continue the business model that has made them successful – namely, forcing ISPs to bear part of their operating costs, which get passed on to all internet consumers regardless of whether they use YouTube or Netflex.

    And like all businesses, they want legal protections to lock in the current system and protect them from disruptive market changes. So they push for so-called net neutrality regulations that would enable them to continue freeloading on existing infrastructure without being asked to pony up for the costs of maintenance and improvements to better handle the heavy strain their service place upon it. But that’s a case where they should be careful what they wish for, as law moves much slower than markets. The same law or regulation that might offer protection today, by trying to force implementation of a system long after it’s been rendered obsolete, will be their chains tomorrow. That’s just the nature of government, and why market planning always fails.

    Allied with these special business interests are power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats who never miss an opportunity to expand their personal authority. President Obama is among them, and is urging the FCC to regulate the internet as a utility by invoking Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. That’s right, the people who claim to want to save the internet think it should be governed under legislation written before it existed and while television was still in its infancy. Even generously counting the update to the law that took place 18 years ago – though the Title II authority comes from the original legislation – it still outdates modern high speed technology.

    The Telecommunications Act of 1996 that was used to update the Communications Act demonstrates perfectly the slow pace of government vis-à-vis markets, as it is already severely outdated. Its authors sought to foster competition within distinct markets, or between companies providing the same service using the same underlying technology. What happened in reality is that various technologies advanced to the point that multiple solutions were available to solve the same problem – VoIP could compete with wired and wireless telephone companies, and online video with cable television. As a result, many companies presently competing to offer the same services are operating under different regulatory regimes, which distorts the market and discourages innovation.

    Under Title II, a small, unelected bureaucracy would hold vast power over the internet. And an internet where the FCC is free to effectively set rates and control infrastructure would look much different than the expansive, innovative sphere to which we’ve grown accustomed.

    If such a regime had been in place over recent decades, we simply would not enjoy many of the conveniences that we do today. ISPs would be forced to beg political appointees unlikely to posses much technical knowledge before introducing new products and services. That’s a recipe for stagnation. This is the same government, after all, which managed to spend billions just on a website – and they couldn’t even get it to work on time.

    Much of the fervor for regulating ISPs is understandably driven by widespread perceptions that existing providers are generally awful. This is not without merit, as Comcast is often considered one of the worst companies in America. But this is in large part due to the many existing rules and regulations that work to suppress competition in the industries in which it operates. The solution then is not to tighten control and erect yet more barriers, but to remove those limiting competition.

    It is a mostly laissez-faire approach that has given the internet room to grow and thrive, and enabled its culture of radical freedom. A socialist-style forced equality to promote net neutrality would kill the innovative spirit of the internet and strangle it into mediocrity.

    Don’t miss last week’s column: A Republican Failure to Reform CBO and JCT Would Be Ideological Surrender.

    Brian Garst is a political scientist, commentator, and advocate for free markets and individual liberty. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.

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      • Livnthedream

        What this doesn’t touch on is that Internet should be flat made a utility at this point. The internet is more important to daily lives than arguably any other media has before. Its certainly far more utilitarian. With the merger of Comcast and Time-Warner they have such a monopoly on it anyway, just make it like power and be done with it.

        • Vision_From_Afar

          Bingo. The “last mile” is where net neutrality must be enforced. We’ve already seen Comcast deliberately neuter Netflix until it would knuckle under. Right now, there’s nothing stopping it from happening again.

      • Kasimir Urbanski

        I’m sorry, but the title of this piece makes it sound like “Net Neutrality” is some crazy new idea about to be imposed on the internet, and not the operating principle that has regulated the internet SINCE THE VERY BEGINNING. Are you claiming that’s not true? Is there some new thing called ‘net neutrality’ that’s any different than the ‘net neutrality’ that has been around since forever?

        • http://www.briangarst.com/ Brian Garst

          Yes, “Government imposed net neutrality” differs from the principle of net neutrality in the same way that government imposed politeness would differ from ordinary politeness. Not everything worth practicing in the private sphere needs, or can practically be given, force of law.

        • Kasimir Urbanski

          But I’m sorry, perhaps I’ve been misinformed, was the Net Neutrality we’ve had until now NOT “government imposed” per se?

          Also, there’s still the question to me of seeing the Internet, the single greatest invention of at least the last five centuries if not since the invention of the written word itself, as an Infrastructural necessity. Its not “free market capitalism” to allow certain companies to put up barriers that blockade shipping lanes or roads to disadvantage other companies.

          A fair ground floor seems to me to be pretty essential to make sure free market capitalism can thrive on the internet.

          What I DON’T want is anyone acting as a gatekeeper to create a non-neutral situation, whether that’s the Government slowing down access to Fox News (which isn’t really something anyone has discussed doing) or Sony Pictures & the MPAA trying to slow down access to Youtube and Google to try to restrict access to free information in the name of “stopping piracy” (which they actually have talked about doing, several times). So in this case, the only people I see right now trying to abuse the infrastructure of the internet to engage in censorship are the private corporations.

        • http://www.briangarst.com/ Brian Garst

          “But I’m sorry, perhaps I’ve been misinformed, was the Net Neutrality we’ve had until now NOT “government imposed” per se?”

          Not that I’m aware. It’s been a general principle that private actors have agreed is desirable, but which has also rightly had exceptions, several of which I noted in the piece.

          You point out bad things some private corporation might do, but haven’t been able to at this time. I agree those things would be bad. Where we differ is on the question of whether that warrants government intervention at all. I’m not convinced of any such need at present. And even if we agreed on that point, there would still be the practical question of what form that intervention should take. It’s hardly a given, obviously, that all possibly responses would be created equal, or that none would create more problems than they would solve, which is what I believe Title II reclassification would do.

          And note, too, that my primary argument against government involvement was not abuse, though that’s a possibility. Regulatory capture would certainly be likely. Rather, my chief argument against government rules is that political processes are inherently slow, and that heavily regulated industries are thus the least innovative.

        • Kasimir Urbanski

          I think we can both agree that equal access to infrastructure is a vital part of the free market, right?
          We can also agree that a bigger problem than any question of net neutrality is the limiting of competition among ISPs in the U.S.; from what I understand there are many areas where there’s literally no choice for the consumer in this matter.
          If you had a world where any group, any anarchist co-op (ironic as that is) or whatever, could make their own ISP and provide access to a totally uncensored un-roadblocked internet, then there’s really no issue.

          I think we can also probably agree that more often than not Government has caused hassles rather than solve it, but I think Net Neutrality is a special case: it was a rare instant where something got away from government and became a vehicle for freedom, for free speech, for the free commerce of things the government doesn’t approve of. Remember that if you get rid of net neutrality you could also potentially get rid of it FOR government, meaning that the government could use any number of flimsy excuses to get stricter control OVER the internet, and that’s the bigger danger, I think.

          As for the rest, there’s also the point that this entire debate is about rival corporate interests: there’s huge corporations that are deeply opposed to Net Neutrality for self-serving reasons, and huge corporations that are determined to defend Net Neutrality for self-serving reasons. As it happens, it’s because their interests are at odds with each other, and ultimately, it’s because one group of corporations (the ones who are most interested in opposing Net Neutrality) are horse-and-buggy salesmen in the era of the Automobile. They want to try to destroy the innovators.

          Forget about government for a moment: when I look at the two forces opposed to each other here in the Private sector, they’re all very big corporations, but I notice that all the ones that OPPOSE Net Neutrality are big corporations that have a vested interest in the internet (and information on the internet) being LESS free, because they make their money by controlling and restricting the flow of information; and all the big corporations that defend Net Neutrality are ones that have a vested interest in the internet (and information therein) being MORE free, because they make their money by encouraging the free flow of information.

          I know which side in that fight I want to see the winner.

        • Kasimir Urbanski

          Incidentally, I agree that one big problem with internet access in the U.S. is lack of competition in local/regional markets. But I don’t think that has happened because of Net Neutrality or that the solution to that has anything to do with removing net-neutrality (which, contrary to the notion you presented would not “protect the culture of radical freedom” online, but allow ISPs to choke any content they didn’t like).

      • Steven Schwartz

        Considering that the Internet grew out of the government, I find this notion that somehow letting the government regulate it is a bad idea a rather…odd one.

        I am afraid your ideology is getting in the way of the problem-solving. The problem here is one caused by too little regulation heading us in the direction (as laissez-faire *anything* most often does) of a few companies dominating the market — especially one where the entry costs are so high — and the issues of competition between those companies and their ability to pick winners and losers in the rest of the markets that depend on them. We’ve already seen the kind of struggle this generates when it comes to channels being carried or dropped on cable TV providers.

        I’m sure you know the quote as well as I: “The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it”. This is true even when it’s something as obnoxious as the Great Firewall. Ensuring a base level of functionality for the network as a whole makes innovation *above* the transport layer a lot easier and a lot more secure; rather like the national highway system, for example.

        “It is a mostly laissez-faire approach that has given the internet room
        to grow and thrive, and enabled its culture of radical freedom. ”

        Given that the basic infrastructure, which is much of the level this is talking about, is far from “laissez-faire” (as I can assure you from years working with network admins, as a sysadmin), I think you’re confusing layers here. Perhaps going back and looking at the 7-layer model again? ;)

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      • Stephen Hicks

        Nicely done article.

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