Some Quick Thoughts on Net Neutrality

Last night I posted the following on Twitter:

Every anti-net-neutrality article said this would never happen: … THIS IS LITERALLY THE FIRST THING THAT HAPPENED

In the last 16 hours that’s been retweeted more than 350 times, and rising quickly. That’s not a huge deal, as famous people retweets go, but it’s a lot more than I typically get, and that’s kind of cool. The problem is, there’s so much more to the issue of net neutrality than can be contained in one snarky tweet, especially on an issue that continues to evolve. My own understanding of the issue continues to grow, even in the last 16 hours, and my thoughts are no longer perfectly aligned with the thing I keep getting quoted for. This post won’t be retweeted as much as really pithy thing I said last night, but I’ll feel better knowing it’s out there.

Net neutrality, put as simply as possible, is the idea that Internet Service Providers have to treat all net traffic the same, just like all phone service providers have to treat all calls the same: you can’t, for example, purposefully make one group’s service worse or less far-reaching than another’s, just because you don’t like them. This is a good thing, and none of us question it on phones, but when it comes to Internet some people (mostly ISPs) want the rules to work differently. In their defense, a lot of their rules already work differently, and when net neutrality was officially struck down last month it was because the FCC had pulled some classification shenanigans that made their version of it illegal. I’m not here to debate the legal grounds of the current situation, because I don’t understand it in full, and neither do almost any of you: we’re not tel-com lawyers or FCC officials, and while we may passionately defend the version of the story that we think is correct, that’s not the same thing as actually being correct. What I do believe is that net neutrality, whatever we have to do to make it work legally, is vital to the future of the Internet, which makes it vital to the future of everything. That’s not an exaggeration.

The people who support net neutrality often do it with some version of this: “If you let ISPs control the flow of information, they will do so in a way that serves their own ends, and not their customers.” That’s the basic version–most of the time it’s more of a scare tactic:

“Tel-com companies could hold certain websites hostage, demanding more money to let people access them.”
“Tel-com companies could influence elections by artificially hampering one candidate’s web traffic and availability.”
“Tel-com companies could artificially limit your access to certain web content unless you pay a premium fee.”

I call these scare tactics, but some of these things have already happened; the last one, in particular, started happening within hours of the net neutrality decision, with some ISPs purposefully throttling certain web services, including access to competitors. Let’s say you’re on ISP X and don’t like it, and want to switch to ISP Y; it’s now harder for you to get to ISP Y’s webpage through ISP X’s network, because they made it harder on purpose, because they don’t want you to leave and it’s legal to screw with you, so why not? To put that in perspective, imagine picking up an AT&T phone and trying to call Verizon, only to discover that AT&T decided your phone is not allowed to call a competitor. That sounds insane on a phone, but that’s where we’re headed with ISPs.

That’s why I freaked out when I read that article about Netflix, because it seemed like a clear case of an ISP (Comcast) shaking down a content provider (Netflix) for money: “you’ve got some really great content there, buddy, it’d be a real shame if nobody could access it over our network. Pay your protection money or we can’t be responsible for what happens next.” Let me reiterate: that kind of behavior is now legal, and it has already happened in small scale, and I full expect it to happen in large scale, probably sooner than we think. I suspect that I jumped the gun a little in this particular situation, though: Netflix is a massive force on the Internet, accounting for anywhere from 28-33% of all Internet traffic in America. Yes, you read that right. Let that sink in, and then ask yourself how a company like Comcast would possibly risk offending a company that powerful? They desperately want that traffic–providing service to Netflix is, in a very real sense, 33% of their business model. If they throttle it artificially, their customers will go somewhere else, somewhere their Internet access is not suddenly reduced by 33% for no good reason. So really, companies like Netflix are probably safe for now; this deal with Comcast is more likely an attempt by both companies to work together and try to get that 33% piece of the pie even bigger, though upgraded cables and servers and data centers. They need each other.

But they don’t need everybody, and I don’t think I’m being an alarmist when I say that we’re going to start seeing these big ISPs strong-arming smaller companies, and customers, in ways both subtle and direct. I don’t think this is a good thing. I want net neutrality reinstated, through whatever means are both legal and ethical. But I also wanted to clear up this particular point, since it irked me to have made such a broad generalization, including some facts I later learned were faulty, in such a public way.

6 Responses to “Some Quick Thoughts on Net Neutrality”

  1. Eric says:

    If they throttle it artificially, their customers will go somewhere else, somewhere their Internet access is not suddenly reduced by 33% for no good reason.

    Ah, but there’s the rub. This is a market in which vendors have been given limited monopolies, so you might have a kind of choice between cable, phone, fiber optic and wireless if you’re in a “competitive” market. You might, if you’re geographically blessed, be able to go from, say, Comcast to AT&T or Verizon FIOS, maybe. Most markets, however, you’ll be choosing between cable and DSL.

    In such a limited market, with such high barriers to entry, companies don’t even have to actively collude to screw the consumer. It isn’t an antitrust violation for AT&T and Comcast to look at the other’s package and offer what comes out to be a similarly-priced service once any short-term incentives (free installation, price breaks for new customers, etc.) are factored in.

    What’s more, some of these companies already have such ruined reputations and ugly histories that they can nearly shrug off threats of leaving. “You really want to switch to AT&T?” Comcast might say. “Ha. Yeah. Let us know how that works out for you. You’ll be back.” And they might be right. AT&T has a reputation for sucking almost as bad as… well, as bad as Comcast’s.

    It’s not necessarily wrong for a telecom to have a limited monopoly. Public resources have to be doled out, whether you’re talking about property easements for landlines to traverse or divvying up the public’s EMF spectrum so wireless providers aren’t jamming each other. But the rationale for giving these companies those limited monopolies is that the public is going to watch them like a hawk to make sure the companies aren’t crossing the fine line between profiting from a public service and holding the public hostage and exploiting them. And right now in the U.S., Congress and the Executive are doing a pretty lousy job of watching on our behalf.

  2. Kurt says:

    As one of your retweeters, I’ve retweeted the tweet with the link to this clarification of your previous retweeted tweet.

    Whew, say that ten times fast.

  3. admin says:

    Retweeted now 618 times, and counting.

  4. roc says:

    Comcast may not be trying to jilt Netflix, but the two of them together are colluding to make sure any competitors have a severe disadvantage. And, of course, the prices will continue to rise for consumers. Netflix has to raise money to cover the fees, after all. And Comcast will likely create more expensive “super movie” tiers for those who want faster movie streaming.

  5. minnmass says:

    Eric hit the nail on the head: in the _vast_ majority of the US, people have the choice of, at best, a duopoly of “high-speed” ISPs. And, both of those choices are likely to be among the worst speed-per-dollar values available globally (that is, most of the world has higher speeds for lower prices).

    The other major aspect that Comcast seems to be conveniently forgetting is that Netflix is now being double-billed for the traffic they’re putting onto the Internet: they’re paying their own ISPs (probably pretty handsomely), with the (heretofore reasonable) assumption that the traffic would reach the end user in a timely manner; they’re now paying for that traffic again, to a company with which they have no previous direct relationship.

    There’s no getting around the fact – yes, fact – that this is a shakedown. Comcast is abusing their position as a monopoly, pure and simple. Other ISPs are already jumping on the bandwagon.

  6. admin says:

    748 retweets, which is probably about as high as it will get. I wonder how many individual accounts have seen it by now?

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