A Not-So-Neutral Net


Perhaps I am just contrarian by nature.  Last week I defended the universally vilified Donald Sterling, and now will go where few have gone before and actually defend the FCC’s decision against “net neutrality” and in favor of a free internet.

What’s that you say, how can the net be free when internet service providers (ISP’s) can discriminate against certain data?  The answer is that freedom comes from escaping government controls, not desired outcomes.

Net neutrality means more government involvement in the internet, with government agents deciding how ISP’s run their business and control data.  The pro-freedom position demands we reject this intervention into the free market, and advocate for a different net neutrality enforced by market controls, not state controls.

ISP’s control perhaps the most important part of the internet, the part most vulnerable to traffic manipulation.  This “last mile” of the internet, as the saying goes, is the part that goes into your home.  Before the data gets to that point, the net is sufficiently robust that threats to restrict transmission of data are not dire.  The internet’s progenitor, ARPANET was designed so that data would not be dependant on one area of the network – it would use the entire network to transmit and therefore area problems would not defeat the transmission of data.  So, if you want to control how people get data – what types of data and at what speeds they get it, the only practical way to do so is by controlling this last mile.  ISP’s have that control, and the fight over net neutrality is all about trying to make sure they don’t mess with people’s connections for profit or more nefarious motives.

Let us stipulate that those who support net neutrality do so with mostly the purest of motives.  They want to make sure that the access to data over the internet is not corrupted and propose to do so by preventing private ISP’s from discriminating against different types of data.  The other side of the debate is dominated by the ISP’s, and we should further stipulate that they are often not good actors.  Comcast, the largest of them all, has absolutely “monitored the content of its customers’ internet connections and selectively blocked” traffic, and then bald faced lied about it, denying they did so.

Comcast has a number of vested interests in being able to control types and speed of data.  It owns both NBC and online video provider Hulu, so it may well want to slow down competing services, or speed up its own.  The proposition of Comcast playing favorites only intensifies when we look at their aggressive growth.  If their proposed merger with Time-Warner goes through, they will have a 49% market share of the country’s high speed internet subscribers.

But just because the current facts on the ground demonstrate that the main proponents of one argument have good intentions and the opponents are often untrustworthy, this by itself should not in the end be determinative.  The problem is that there may be very good reasons for ISP’s to treat data differently – reasons most consumers would favor, and even if they wouldn’t, good public policy should favor them.  Would you want to limit free speech for those people whose opinions you detest?  Throw out the baby with the bathwater?

You can’t read an article about net neutrality without seeing Netflix mentioned.  The online streaming video service dominates internet traffic with estimates as high as 33% of all data traffic between 5 & 11 p.m.  Netflix management is upset with Comcast because they believe Comcast restricts their data, and refuses to implement the solutions that Netflix has to try and prevent data traffic jams.  Netflix had to pay Comcast a fee in order for them to implement these Content Delivery Networks.  As Consumer Reports describes:

A CDN is basically a network of servers situated at various points at the “edge” of the Internet. That means that instead of everything coming all the way from Netflix, programs can be stored locally at or near the various ISPs. This can greatly speed up the delivery of, say, an episode of “Orange Is the New Black,” since your request is automatically routed to the closest server holding that content.

So, Comcast makes money from its residential customers who pay for access to the internet, and then from the content provider to insure access to the residential customers.  You can see how that has some, including the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, up in arms and supporting net neutrality.

However, companies who use CDN’s (paid or not) are not treating data equally though, are they?  No – they are giving preferences to certain kind of data.  Except in this instance, most consumers prefer that discrimination.  They want the Netflix traffic to move faster.  Companies who offer this kind of discrimination are thus responding to the wants and needs of their customers.

Unless there is a true monopoly, where government has insured that only one company can deliver domestic broadband to a certain location, people should be able to decide for themselves the terms and conditions under which they will subscribe to a given ISP.  If there is a monopoly, then some kind of neutral or “protocol agnostic” approach to network management should be mandated.  For the rest, truth in labeling should rule the day.

It is absolutely unacceptable for companies to sell people internet service the customer believes is neutral, and then manipulate the data behind their backs.  Comcast was rightfully rebuked for this the last time they were caught, and Congress should empower the FCC to deal very harshly with any ISP who does so.  If, however, people want to purchase services from an ISP who manipulates data – the federal government shouldn’t stand in the way.  Consumers should be free to choose who to deal with, and companies who don’t operate with government grants of monopolies should be free to operate as they see fit.

Someone needs to be in charge of how data travels the last mile to our computers/tablets.  Do you want that to be government bureaucrats who are notoriously corrupt, inept and clumsy?  While private companies are not always nimble and trustworthy, in a free market I can always go across the street to deal with another vendor if I choose.  But when government is the decision maker, there is no alternative.