Net Neutrality Explained
In one of the earlier articles covering the first of the Net Neutrality battles a 2008 Macworld article explained,
“Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) acts as a gateway between you and the Internet. It’s the pipeline that allows you to access everything from your e-mail to remote file servers where you back up your important data—not to mention browsing the Web. But what happens if, instead of a pipeline, your ISP instead acts as a filter? In some cases, that scenario is beginning to play out as ISPs increasingly seem to be moving toward favoring some types of traffic over others. The idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally is known as network neutrality. In other words, no matter who uploads or downloads data, or what kind of data is involved, networks should treat all of those packets in the same manner. To do otherwise, advocates argue, would amount to data discrimination.” (Honan)
Simply put, the internet when understood as an essential service the ability ISPs have to interfere with this critical flow is understably concerning. Net Neutrality (henceforth at times to be referenced as NN) is the principle that the internet is too important allow the people responsible for transporting it to be allowed to touch it. The major flare up hit headlines with the 2015 classification of Internet as a utility, allowing it to be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, tearing it away from the Federal Trade Commision (Ruiz). This classification and other Net Neutrality standards were rolled back in February 2018 (Brandom).
While it may seem fairly straightforward the debates have brought to the forefront a wide range of issues involving crony capitalism, monopolies, public corruption, free market policies, and consumer rights. As the dust settles with each battle, most voices return to two distinct camps: Net Neutrality Advocates determined to keep legislation protect the internet from predatory ISPs and Net Neutrality Opponents arguing for decreased regulation for increased competition and better service. Leading the charge for Net Neutrality is the Progressives, championing Internet as the human right threatened by rampant capitalism. Unsurprisingly their foil is found with Libertarians, dissenting with their unyielding faith in the market and distrust of government.
Intrinsic to the Progressive argument for NN is the access to Internet as unquestionable and sacrosanct (“32nd Session of the Human Rights Council (13 June to 1 July and 8 July 2016).”). Immediately with this divine purpose they are justified in framing the struggle as a war between good and evil, between the corporations and the people. Constantly cited is an increasingly slick Freepress article documenting the various “Net Neutrality Violations,” proving that ISPs can’t be trusted to run their own businesses. It boldly declares,
“For years a lineup of phone- and cable-industry spokespeople has called Net Neutrality “a solution in search of a problem.” The principle that protects free speech and innovation online is irrelevant, they claim, as blocking has never, ever happened. And if it did, they add, market forces would compel internet service providers to correct course and reopen their networks.In reality, many providers both in the United States and abroad have violated the principles of Net Neutrality — and they plan to continue doing so in the future. This history of abuse revealed a problem that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality protections solved.” (Karr)
It goes on to list about 10 instances of companies have attempted to cheat consumers of fair and unencumbered internet service. To the NN supporters, the motivation is clear: ISPs have realized they can profit from restricting competition and blackmailing customers with services they are already paying for. To stand as a Progressive against such injustice follows the precedent of fiscal progressives like FDR and the communitarianism of Sandel. Economic equality and democratic participation are both threatened when livelihoods can be destroyed and hearts and minds can be swayed with a couple lines of code inserted by corporations into the backbone of the internet. A more recent yet equally if not more effective appeal was made by popular comedy voices like CollegeHumor,
“You should not trust ISPs to do the right thing. You should never trust Comcast, Time Warner, or any other internet provider to value you as a customer and respect your consumer rights. Anyone who's ever had to deal with their customer service will attest to that. And if they had the opportunity to, say, slow down all connections to Netflix unless you paid your ISP a "Netflix access fee," they would absolutely do that.” (Staff, CH)
For the Libertarians, the rising voice of opposition to the Freepress claims came from Richard Bennett, an original contributor to Ethernet hub and Wi-Fi standards with a thirty year background in network engineering. Tearing through each example, he offers a point for point refutation concluding,
“The horrors the Free Press claims to have unearthed are, for the most part, simply insubstantial fear-mongering. Lists like this may be good for fundraising, but they contribute nothing of value to policy discussions. Whatever comes next in the net neutrality debate needs to be rational and fact based. And we’re clearly not there yet. Net neutrality was meant to be fast path to anti-trust enforcement. Rather than relying on a slow and complicated factual inquiry over anti-consumer and anti-competitive processes, net neutrality originally meant all packets had to be treated equally. The belief was that a ban on differential treatment would make monopoly abuses impossible… Most alleged net neutrality violations didn’t happen, were quickly resolved, or were outside the FCC’s jurisdiction. Perhaps we should ask what the net neutrality campaign hopes to achieve.” (Bennett )
From the onset, Libertarians have been wary of the false juxtaposition presented to the public with capitalist fat cats on one side and defiant common people on the other. While many buy into the narrative a closer look reveals a startling massive legion of corporate NN supporters. Last year July, Wired reported,
“Tomorrow, sites across the web will place alerts on their pages encouraging people to send letters to the FCC asking the agency not to jettison net neutrality. Hundreds of companies and organizations plan to participate in this so-called "Day of Action," from giants such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Netflix to Reddit, Etsy, PornHub, Spotify, and even some smaller internet service providers like Ting and Sonic.” (Finley)
A Bloomberg piece explained the problematic nature of these NN Allies,
“The internet will be filled today with denunciations of this move, threats of a dark future in which our access to content will be controlled by a few powerful companies. And sure, that may happen. But in fact, it may already have happened, led not by ISPs, but by the very companies that were fighting so hard for net neutrality... Our experience of the internet is increasingly controlled by a handful of firms, most especially Google and Facebook. The argument for regulating these companies as public utilities is arguably at least as strong as the argument for thus regulating ISPs, and very possibly much stronger; while cable monopolies may have local dominance, none of them has the ability that Google and Facebook have to unilaterally shape what Americans see, hear and read. In other words, we already live in the walled garden that activists worry about, and the walls are getting higher every day... The fact that these firms were able to cement their power at the moment when regulators were most focused on keeping the internet open tells you just how difficult it is to get that sort of regulation right; while you are looking hard at one danger, an equally large one may be creeping up just outside the range of your peripheral vision.” (McArdle)
Libertarians: (Finally) Winning A Numbers Game
For many, like the author, the choice while unpopular is reasonably that of the Libertarian stance. Net Neutrality’s purpose is the protection of consumers from predatory ISPs and the greatest silver bullet for an ISP that might misbehave is the constant pressure of competition. So if an ISP does abuse data for the consumer the easiest and most economically devastating blow they can deliver in response is to simply switch providers.Yet when NN Opponents offer the market supplied solution of competition it is only shot down as unrealistic. With the Pro-NN Electronic Frontier Foundation, Kate Tummarello writes,
“Those advocating for Pai’s rollback often accuse the FCC of overreaching in 2015 and applying unnecessary regulation on the broadband market. But that argument ignores the unique lack of competition in the broadband market. According to the FCC’s 2016 data, 51 percent of Americans have access to only one provider of high-speed Internet access. That means slightly more than half of the country has no other option for high-speed Internet if they don’t like something their ISP doing. Only 38 percent of Americans have access to more than one ISP. The remaining 10 percent doesn’t have access to a high-speed Internet at all.” (Tummarello)
The essential question then remains, what killed competition? To understand this, one must understand when exactly Net Neutrality came in to play because the dates presented by NN advocates are as frenzied and inconsistent as they are misleading. While some obsess only with the Title II Rules set in 2015 (“FCC Adopts Strong, Sustainable Rules to Protect the Open Internet.”), others prefer 2003 when Tim Wu first coined the term (Wu, Tim. “Network...), and a small but vocal group insists that such principles have guided the internet since its creation (Wu, Tim. “How...) (a claim does that does not go undisputed (“Internet Architect Suggests 'Futures Market' to Avoid Policy Disputes.)). The author has been entertained by the mental gymnastics of Pro-NN disciples trying to leap back and forth between these dates: blaming the poor state of things on the ISPs (by citing later dates) and taking credit for everything great about the internet (by alluding to the earlier ones). Whether or not this is done intentionally or out of ignorance remains a mystery merely because one cannot be brought care enough to clarify; For neither speaks favorably of the Net Neutrality movement.
Thus, for the sake of simplicity and fairness one should center their focus around the idea that Net Neutrality’s origins lie in the middle of those extremes (being the dates between always/2003 and 2015 as referenced above). Specifically, one should approach the cluttered timeline of this argument with the understanding that NN came into being in 2010 with the FCC’s Open Internet Order being given (FCC 10-201.).
One of the least contested sources of information shared by both sides is the data provided by the FCC. In 2009 the FCC’s Standard for Broadband Internet Service was “approximately 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, with acceptable quality of service.” [emphasis added] (Broadband Performance OBI Technical Paper No. 4.) That same year the Internet Access Services: Status as of December 31, 2009 noted that 76% of the population had access to 2 or more ISPs offering this standard (Internet Access Services: Status as of December 31, 2009. ). I like to call this percentage Competitive Coverage.
[See Figure 1]
7 years later the State of the Internet (Internet Access Services: Status as of June 30, 2016.) report noted only 42% of the population having 2 or more providers offering the approximate of the 2015 FCC Standard of “At least 25 Mbps downstream and at least 3 Mbps upstream” (Singleton).
[See Figure 2]
Government- The Problem Not The Solution
Even by the admittance of Net Neutrality supporters like the high profile Electronic Frontier Foundation, the villain is clear:
“Thanks to policies at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as some careful planning by the major ISPs, there is no meaningful competition in the broadband market in most parts of the country. Instead, consumers are stuck with government-backed monopolistic ISPs that can get away with anti-consumer business practices.” [Emphasis added] (Tummarello)
Now, ignoring the fact that most people have an uninformed definition of monopoly (Ebeling) (usually tinged by such socialist biasing against even the slightest hint of it), the EFF gets to the root of the issue- Government regulation got us into this situation and the only reasons why ISPs are able to continue to operate in that way is because they’re propped up by that same government. This is not capitalism, this is unnatural. It’s textbook Crony Capitalism (Orlowski).
So to summarize the timeline:
2009 76% of Americans had access to competing Internet coverage
2010 Net Neutrality happens
For another 6 years additional Net Neutrality rules and standards are installed
2016 Only 42% of Americans have access to competing Internet coverage
The Moral of the Story: Increasing regulation leads decreasing competition.
[See Figure 3]
Thus given the clear data showing that Net Neutrality had the opposite effect of its stated intent, the need for its repeal (in all of its forms) becomes apparent. As Bennett reference in his response to Freepress the FCC standards created additional barriers of entry for potential competition and ended up stifling existing players. He succinctly put it “this ban has harmful side-effects: it keeps certain types of novel services off the Internet and makes it hard for small, rural carriers (such as Madison River) to achieve profitability.” (Bennett) Market meddling got the US into this mess so it’s not too far of a stretch of the imagination to believe it won’t be able to get the US out of it.
“32nd Session of the Human Rights Council (13 June to 1 July and 8 July 2016).” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations , 1 July 2016, www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session32/Pages/ResDecStat.aspx.
Bennett , Richard. “Fact-Checking Free Press Net Neutrality Violations.” High Tech Forum, 13 July 2017, hightechforum.org/fact-checking-net-neutrality-violations/.
Brandom, Russell. “Everything You Need to Know about the Net Neutrality Resolution Coming to Congress next Week.” The Verge, VOX MEDIA, INC., 3 May 2018, www.theverge.com/2018/5/3/17314404/net-neutrality-cra-congressional-review-act-markey-senate.
Broadband Performance OBI Technical Paper No. 4. Federal Communications Commission, 13 Aug. 2010, transition.fcc.gov/national-broadband-plan/broadband-performance-paper.pdf.
Ebeling, Richard M. “Capitalism and the Misunderstanding of Monopoly.” The Future of Freedom Foundation, 27 Nov. 2017, www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/capitalism-misunderstanding-monopoly/.
FCC 10-201. Federal Communications Commission, 21 Dec. 2010, apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-10-201A1.pdf.
“FCC Adopts Strong, Sustainable Rules to Protect the Open Internet.” Federal Communications Commission, 10 Nov. 2016, www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-adopts-strong-sustainable-rules-protect-open-internet.
Finley, Klint. “The Who's Who of Net Neutrality's Day of Action.” Wired, Conde Nast, 12 July 2017, www.wired.com/story/the-whos-who-of-net-neutralitys-day-of-action/.
Honan, Mathew. “Inside Net Neutrality: Is Your ISP Filtering Content?” Macworld, IDG, 12 Feb. 2008, www.macworld.com/article/1132075/web-apps/netneutrality1.html.
Internet Access Services: Status as of December 31, 2009. Federal Communications Commission, 31 Dec. 2009, apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-303405A1.pdf.
Internet Access Services: Status as of June 30, 2016. Federal Communications Commission, 30 June 2016, apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-344499A1.pdf.
“Internet Architect Suggests 'Futures Market' to Avoid Policy Disputes.” Clemson Information Economy Project, Warren Communications News, Inc, 5 Feb. 2009, iep.clemson.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/Internet_Architect_Suggests.Feb2009.pdf.
Karr, Timothy. “Net Neutrality Violations: A Brief History.” Free Press, 24 Jan. 2018, www.freepress.net/our-response/expert-analysis/explainers/net-neutrality-violations-brief-history.
McArdle, Megan. “The Internet Had Already Lost Its Neutrality.” Bloomberg, Bloomberg, 21 Nov. 2017, www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-11-21/the-internet-had-already-lost-its-neutrality.
Orlowski, Andrew. “When 'Saving The Internet' Means 'Saving Crony Capitalism'.” The Register, The Register, 12 July 2017, www.theregister.co.uk/2017/07/12/when_saving_the_internet_means_saving_crony_capitalism/.
Ruiz, Rebecca R., and Steve Lohr. “F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html.
Singleton, Micah. “The FCC Has Changed the Definition of Broadband.” The Verge, The Verge, 29 Jan. 2015, www.theverge.com/2015/1/29/7932653/fcc-changed-definition-broadband-25mbps.
Staff, CH. “Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality.” CollegeHumor, CollegeHumor, 11 May 2017, www.collegehumor.com/post/7044983/why-you-should-care-about-net-neutrality.
Tummarello, Kate. “A Bad Broadband Market Begs for Net Neutrality Protections.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 27 May 2017, www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/05/bad-broadband-market-begs-net-neutrality-protections.
Wu, Tim. “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination.” Social Science Research Network, Columbia University - Law School, 5 June 2003, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=388863.
Wu, Tim. “How the FCC's Net Neutrality Plan Breaks With 50 Years of History.” Wired, Conde Nast, 6 Dec. 2017, www.wired.com/story/how-the-fccs-net-neutrality-plan-breaks-with-50-years-of-history/.