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Net Neutrality Is Not a Rational Debate

Iain Morris

Discrimination, blocking, throttling. The language itself is that of the civil rights struggle, of intolerance and tyranny. One envisages the oppressor's hand around the citizen's throat. And the street scenes are reminiscent of a demonstration against some unjust war in a far-off land, with placard-waving protestors outraged by the abuses they have witnessed.

But this is not an anti-war demonstration or 1950s Alabama. It is about the Internet, a planet-encompassing jumble of fiber-optic cables and unspectacular buildings, and whether its stewards are undermining it as a democratic institution and spur to innovation. Welcome to the net neutrality debate, where scaremongering, irrationality and hyperbole are never in short supply.

The end of the free Internet is nigh.
The end of the free Internet is nigh.

Even the basic premise is problematic. To its most committed supporters, a net neutral Internet is no less a human right than freedom of expression. If the operators of broadband networks are allowed to restrict access to some services, or charge more for a particular application, the Internet will become a forum for corporate giants. Quieter voices will be excluded, no matter how original and important they might sound.

But this notion of the Internet as a universal right is counterintuitive, largely because the Internet's circuitry and wiring are often not publicly owned property, in the way that a road or railway might still be. Forcing a broadband operator to carry some content at a stipulated fee seems little different from requiring a supermarket to stock products it dislikes at prices it cannot control. This point is not new, of course. The placard bearers' response is that the Internet has become too important a tool for the exchange of ideas and information to be vandalized by its very owners. Like good corporate citizens, they must be forced to protect it.

Yet precisely what this protection should entail is not clear cut. For instance, does "discrimination" extend to the "zero-rating" practice of bundling some Internet services into a smartphone plan, and not counting usage against monthly data limits? This has certainly prompted a backlash from net neutrality supporters in some countries, even if other observers deem it acceptable.

The absence of legal precedent in a technology market that is still so immature explains much of the uncertainty. The launch of 5G will sow more. Telcos are drawn to this next-generation technology largely because it will help them to provide many different types of network service over the same physical infrastructure. Imagine a narrowband link for smart meters, a low-latency connection for self-driving cars and an ultrafast broadband service for TV -- all delivered over the same hardware. Exciting as this sounds to an operator, it potentially describes the sort of "prioritization" that has the net neutrality fanatics slavering beneath their banners. (See How 5G Could Digitally Divide in a Post Net Neutrality World, DT: 5G Network Slicing Lacks Clear Definition 5G Calls for EU Rethink on Net Neutrality and Net Neutrality Rules Threaten 5G, NFV – Telenor.)

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None of this means telcos should have free rein. Without appropriate checks and balances, there is always the danger that a dominant company will abuse its position through unfair pricing, or by stopping an Internet company from using its network. This has already happened. But it has not led to Armageddon. Some cases have been dealt with under existing competition laws. And certain risks have surely receded as telcos have given up battling Internet companies once perceived as a service threat. The idea that an operator would impede an Internet telephony or messaging provider seems anachronistic.

Is some places, competition itself has been the ultimate safeguard. Indeed, the current furore over net neutrality in the US -- with its arcane Title I and Title II rules -- has obscured the real problem in that market: the lack of broadband competition. Across vast swathes of the US, households have access to just one broadband provider. Relatively few Americans are presented with a choice of three or more. When there is no one else offering an alternative way, abuses are so much more likely. (See Fed Watch: AT&T, Net Neutrality & More and Pai's FCC Raises Alarms at Competitive Carriers.)

The irony is that Americans have now got the no-holds-barred system the giant telcos have long craved, while Europe, with its bustling broadband markets, seems keen to bind itself in more red tape. Net neutrality was not even a topic of discussion in Europe a decade ago. Now, influenced by US trendsetters, its legislators are on a fanatic's mission to enshrine the principle in complicated directives, whatever it eventually means. On both sides of the Atlantic, commonsense has gone out of the window.

In the meantime, the problem that net neutrality is meant to address is already upon us -- and not because of legislative shortcomings on net neutrality. Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Facebook and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), the four horsemen of the technopocalypse, are omnipresent and unavoidable. They have been able to monopolize the Internet through their own technology might and the power of non-technological network effects, not because of zero rating. Any startup challenge to their dominance can be swiftly crushed through takeover or by replicating that company's services. Net neutrality is just a distraction.

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
12/15/2017 | 10:49:35 AM
Re: Re: Too Much Hype
The arguments will certainly not end anytime soon. Whether it's good, bad, or of no concern, we'll not know now for some time to come what results will issue forth after the Dec. 14 FCC decision.
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/9/2017 | 11:11:07 PM
Re: Who do you trust
No one wants a forum for corporate giants. We had that. Remember CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL?

Corporate Internet. And it was very poor. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/7/2017 | 3:55:31 PM
Re: Who do you trust
And Iain said this isn't a rational debate...
User Rank: Light Beer
12/7/2017 | 3:40:18 PM
Who do you trust
If carriers are against Net Neutrality, then we should be for it. The carriers are inherently untrustworthy, a fact proven over decades. They choose to lobby & legislate rather than compete. They collude with and profit from the FTC. They invest only when forced to. They crush independents for sport. And in areas where they do compete like wireless, they price-fix. If carriers had their druthers, you'd be paying tariffed rates for broadband.

Removing Net Neutrality would also bring the FTC back into the equation. You remember them, the ones who spent 20 years passively watching the Internet be reduced to a few massive providers. Oh yes, they also gave us "Do Not Track".

Yes, broadband isn't exactly analogous to a common carrier, but it's the best tool we have right now. I'd welcome far more nuanced regulation that could come with an overhaul of the Telecommuncations Act of 1996, but that requires our legislators get off their dysfunctional butts.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/6/2017 | 8:52:42 PM
All things in moderation
While it is absolutely true that there is a lot of sunk cost in bring the pipes to the homes, it is equally true that in most places there is one dominant player who does this. Hence in my view the truth much more lies on the side of the content providers, than on the side of the carriers. The "market" simply doesnt exist. 

Trying to lay the blame at the feet of Amazon/Netflix/Google/Microsoft is completely falacious. None of them ask you to do anything. And all of them can be supplanted with options. That is not the case when you have only Comcast in your neighborhood.

I am reminded of the debates about Microsoft in the 90s, when it was to be regulated as utility because it was the only viable option. That situation exists much more on the carrier side. On the content side, the competiion is absolutely fierce (Amazon/Walmort/NewEgg/Costco, Netflix/Hulu,.....). 
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/6/2017 | 8:30:42 PM
Net Neutrality only when it's for me.
Web monsters like Google and Amazon are hypocrites and the same goes for Facebook and Youtube and a host of others. They don't care about the end users or about being fair. They just care about making as much money as they can and using the populist sounding Net Nutrality argument to their benefit.  

I just read that Google is preventing YouTube from working on Amazon products like the FireTV and the Echo Show and that Google said it took action because Amazon doesn't carry Google hardware or let Google hardware stream Amazon Prime Video.

Originally the telco argument was that since these web monsters were running over their networks they should pay the telcos for use of the network that the telcos built and owned.

The web monsters lobbied congress for Net Nutrality so that they would not have to pay and in response the telcos started rate limiting sites like Youtube and NetFlix and Amazon video.

Customers then were forced to pay the telco for a premimum package with more bandwidth than what was really needed for the promise of getting reliable access to these sites. 

I don't agree with the rate limiting and I don't like having to pay for more bandwidth than I need, but I do see some merit to the telco argument that the web monsters should be paying for some of the costs running their data over of the telco network.

I don't think that the Internet is a public property like the highways and there isn't much profit in moving bits. Not like there is in being a big web property. 

User Rank: Light Beer
12/6/2017 | 11:09:53 AM
Re: Too Much Hype
The irony is that Americans have now got the no-holds-barred system the giant telcos have long craved, while Europe, with its bustling broadband markets, seems keen to bind itself in more red tape.
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2017 | 12:11:50 PM
Re: Too Much Hype
Religion and the world of broadband access just do not mix.  There is a lot of great theory out there, but this is not a blank slate.  It is not homogeneous.  There is not a one size fits all thing.  I remember maybe 20 years ago being on a panel with a guy from MCI.  He wanted the copper network replaced with Ethernet drops.  Wonderful idea that can never be funded or justified.  

There was a symposium hosted by the FCC about how to deal with unbundling cabinets.  People had all kinds of crazy thoughts.  But the problem is that what he had and have is not build with these concepts in mind.  You can wish they did, bu they don't.  So we end up with a natutal duopoly - headed to a cable monopoly in many places.   This is not something that can be legislated or regulated easily.  So why has there never been a push to unbundle cable?  


User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2017 | 11:50:17 AM
Re: Too Much Hype
In a complex world, Congress can't be in the business of managing the details. Few human minds can get their heads wrapped around the subtleties of every important issue. Congress has to legislate policy, and rely on expert agencies to make the rules, subject to oversight.

The problem that I see is that Congress hasn't revisited Telecom policy since 1996. Subsequent Commisions have had to fit the Internet to a Bed of Procrustes; the  Computer II rules enshrined in the 1996 Act. We need a new legal framework, one that will calibrate degree of regulation to degree of actual competition. 

You are right that partisan dysfunction, along with pay-to-play, prevents meaningful policy debates.
Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
12/5/2017 | 3:20:20 AM
Re: Too Much Hype
If we had a functional national legislative body, it shouldn't be that hard to implement rational rules for broadband access.  That would take the whole debate out of the hands of the FCC, where the rules can go back and forth, depending on who is in charge. But in this realm, as in so many, the inability of Congress to create rational, bipartisan standards for something as critical as broadband infrastructure - and it is a national economic issue - means this near-religious debate will continue ad nauseum. 
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
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