Free Markets, Free People

The politics of net neutrality

Net neutrality is back in the news.  So, are you for it or against it?

Given the debate that surrounds the subject, that’s not as easy a question to answer as you might imagine.  Because in order to answer it you have to understand what “for” and “against” even mean now.

The internet as a phenomenon broke onto the world’s stage some years ago and has been growing and improving exponentially for years.  It has not only improved the flow and availability of information but the lives of countless millions of people around the globe as well. And it has essentially accomplished all of this without any major government intervention.

Of course most knew that anything that powerful and uncontrolled must come to the attention of government at some point.  The question is – to what purpose? Why should government intrude on a network that is providing so much acknowledged good without it? The answer: because it is there. And the paranoid are sure that the corporations that are involved in it are up to no good. Thus we need government’s help to keep those evil corporations in line.

Enter the concept of “net neutrality” and the postulation that unless government steps in to ensure it remains “neutral”, greedy corporations would take advantage of the net to advance their bottom lines to the detriment of small consumers.

That’s not something made up in an effort to overstate the case. It is the argument of those who favor government’s involvement, such as Senator Al Franken. Speaking at a meeting on the subject of net neutrality on August 19th, Franken said, “When government does not act, corporations will.  And unlike government agencies which have a legal responsibility to protect consumers, the only thing corporations care about … is their bottom line.”

While it is certainly true that corporations care about their bottom line, the way corporations increase that bottom line is by making and keeping customers happy.  That critical part of how the “bottom line” is increased is somehow always lost on the “let’s get government involved” crowd who feed off of fear driven and unfounded paranoia to justify intrusion.

The debate and arguments for or against the proposed net neutrality regulation aren’t hard to find.  Google and Verizon have offered their version of net neutrality that has been seen as either corporations writing the rules to help themselves or as the maintenance of the status quo.  Frankly, the status quo seems to be working quite well for most.

Much of the “let’s get government involved” movement is led by “Free Press”, a group which has made a cottage industry of the effort. Their main effort is focused on empowering the FCC to “regulate the internet” – a broad and, frankly, scary charter.  For some reason, Free Press is under the impression the FCC has the power to do so through the 1996 Telecom Act.   But does the FCC have that power?  Most familiar with the act don’t believe so. That includes a number of groups usually associated with progressive causes.

In fact, none other than John Kerry made that point in 1999.

“The overarching policy goal of the 1996 Act is to promote a market-driven, robustly competitive environment for all communications services.  Given that, we wish to make it clear that nothing in the 1996 (Telecommunications) Act or its legislative history suggests that Congress intended to alter the current classification of Internet and other information services or to expand traditional telephone regulation to new and advanced services.”

Of course that was before net neutrality became the “top technology priority” of the Obama administration.  That prompted something for which Mr. Kerry is quite famous – a flip-flop.

“A win for the [telecommunication and cable companies] would mean that the FCC couldn’t protect Net Neutrality, so the telecoms could throttle traffic as they wish — it would be at their discretion,” Kerry wrote in an April op-ed for the Huffington Post.

“The FCC couldn’t help disabled people access the Internet, give public officials priority access to the network in times of emergency, or implement a national broadband plan….In short, it would take away a key check on the power of phone and cable corporations to do whatever they want with our Internet.”

Naturally, what this does is align the ever flexible Mr. Kerry with the White House technology priority, not the law or its intent, which, strangely, he got right in 1999.  In fact, the goal of the 1996 Act was to “diminish regulatory burdens as competition grew”.  Free Press and other progressive organizations want to add more to that burden, not lessen it all while claiming that doing so will “spur innovation” and “new technologies”.  The history of regulation doesn’t support that formula at all.

The answer to the question originally posed?

If it is Free Press’s version of net neutrality, then I am most definitely “against”.



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18 Responses to The politics of net neutrality

  • the telecoms could throttle traffic as they wish — it would be at their discretion

    I can see this as a telcom QoS (Quality of Service) issue … imagine if your neighbor starts downloading every movie on the face of the Earth and your ability to use your internet goes to nothing.  I’m sure you’re going to call the FCC first .. right.  No, you’re going to call your telcom who now has a QoS problem that they can’t do anything about .. being neutral an all.

    • Does anybody know the legal status of the “internet” ?  … is it now considered a “utility” or merely a “service” ?

  • Why would liberals/progressives want to curtail the free flow of information?  Are they afraid or does easily available information work against their goals?

    • More regulation means more government jobs.

    • Because they’re not interested in free flow of information.  You might read or see things they don’t want you to see, unfiltered by the proper opinion sources, that lead you to wrong thinking conclusions.
      You need to be protected from improper information to minimize that danger.

  • Neo, my understanding is that the internet is NOT considered a utility at the moment.  The FCC is making noises about declaring it a utility (which it is not, by definition).
    John, the Collective wants to control everything…information being high on its priority list.  Consider Jouno-list, and the near monologue from the MSM only a decade or two ago, and the near monologue from Hollywood now.  That is not to imply a “conspiracy”, but rather a stark example of group-think and group-speak.  Message conditioning is essential to the Collective; when was the last time a Collectivist candidate ran in the open on a platform that was truthful?  They cannot, of course, because this is a center-right nation, and we don’t want what they want.
    “Free Press” is one of the most dangerous groups in America. Its purpose, like many Collectivist groups with very nice-sounding names, is the opposite of what people would take them for.  They are decidedly militating to limit speech and control the press.

  • In the end, government intervention is not about neutrality of data flow.  It is about government control of the internet, period.  This is the camel’s nose under the tent.  I am against any government mandates on the flow of data.
    Neo is right about QoS.  Most of those people demanding “net neutrality”  likely have no idea the internet currently favors short packets.  The idea is best throughput.  Net neutrality will end up degrading service total throughput and service.

  • If Franken and Obama are for it, that tells me all I need to know.  It will be a dimunation of the individual and an empowerment of government.

  • @Neo – To my understanding, unless the FCC managed to get it changed, the Internet is considered an Information Service by clear legal language, and thus exempt from any federal regulation.  I know they were TRYING to get that changed.
    At Penny-Arcade eXpo in Seattle last month, there was a panel about Net Neutrality, and while I didn’t ask the following question during the panel, I asked one of the people for NN afterwards:
    “So Net Neutrality will keep ISPs from throttling access to website for companies who don’t pay a “fast access”  fee…  What, exactly, keeps them from doing it now?  Nothing?  So why aren’t they doing it now?  Why do you think they will suddenly, magically start doing it?”
    I don’t think she liked my question…

  • The battle is lost already.  The Corporations want the right to manipulate the content I access.  The FCC has been annoited at the defender of that access.  But the FCC is all about regulating content.  So that is essentially putting the Fox in charge of the henhouse.  And Corporate Cronism will come into play eventually.  Its a farce really. 

    The idea that if I want my ISP to not manipulate my content access, that I support the FCC as the alternative is false.

    And the idea that I have a reasonable spectrum of providers to allow the marketplace to decide is also false.  I have two competing technologies where I am from, DSL and Cable and a single provider in each.  That is cross-technology competition which I don’t consider true direct competition.  But the effect is close enough that if you did, two competitors is barely competition.  Eventually big companies find an uneasy peace is more profitable than aggressive head to head competition.  Ask the Big 3 circa late 70’s. 

  • Why should government intrude on a network that is providing so much acknowledged good without it? The answer: because it is there.

    This statement is not true.  While I am willing to cast any kind of aspersion against the larcenous motives of Congress, the fact is that federal, state, and local regulation has created a series of monopolies and duopolies for home internet access.  This government-backed anticompetitiveness means that market pressures – the ability of customers to vote with their business – are largely negated.  Businesses then find themselves driven by investors, seeking to maximize quarterly returns (as they should) but in ways – and I say this as a Comcast employee – that can be customer-unfriendly at times.
    Discussion of ‘net neutrality’ focuses on QOS, the practice of branding a packet with an importance level (1, 2, or 3, as I recall, with 1 being most important).  Nobody disputes that QOS is needed – if I am downloading Firefox, I don’t want that to crowd out my neighbor’s 911 phone call over VOIP.  The practice under fire is QOS assignment by Autonomous System number; i.e. all packets on port 80 get tagged with QOS level 3 except for the ones from Google’s AS if they pay.  QOS is only consulted in cases of congestion, so when bandwidth is overwhelmed, packets at the lowest level will be queued or dropped, and so on.
    So the right thing to do is to drop discussion of QOS and focus on the government reform that would really bring competitiveness, which is Local Loop Unbundling (LLU;  Freeing the last mile to competitive business models will negate all of the hoopla about packet prioritization because it would rob the telco companies of their leverage – the customers they hold hostage.
    Probably the real pre-requisite for all of this is turnover in Congress, that most geriatric of institutions, in favor of folks who are more in touch with the Internet and the ways of open communications.  That’s probably the only way Congress will start writing telecommunications law themselves, instead of just putting up what has already been written by telecoms or web company lobbyists.

  • I am sure that government regulation will bring the same benefits to the internet that it did to the housing market.