30 Mar 2017
Like the issue of corporate personhood we discussed last time, most of my exposure to net neutrality has been one-sided (the affirmative side, that is). This wasn’t conscious or on purpose, just something I’ve noticed in retrospect.
Now, with a more heterogeneous exposure to the topic, I can say that both sides are mired in somewhat empty rhetoric that can be difficult to cut through on your way to the facts and the data. While one side lauds the openness and freedom of the Internet, the other stand up for the rights of capitalist American companies against our wicked government cronies.
Below you’ll find a quick roadmap to guide you through (or perhaps more accurately, fly you over) the swamp.
It almost sounds oxymoronic when you say it out loud. In short, net neutrality is what keeps internet service providers (ISPs) from giving preferential treatment (i.e. better speed) to certain packets going over their network.
It might seem harmless on the surface, but without net neutrality, ISPs might open up “fast lanes” for the top bidders, meaning good network performance is awarded to big players with the coin or connections to purchase it (which is a huge advantage over the smaller folks, like startups, freelancers, and open source projects).
Net neutrality opponents argue that allowing for this “packet discrimination” would promote innovation and investing in Internet infrastructure, as such progress would be encouraged by profit from fast lanes. In response, I encourage you to take stock of the character of your modern ISP. How’s their reputation in customer service? Does it manifest a prioritization of service over profit? I think not, which is why I’m inclined to believe that these fast lanes won’t be grounded in costly new infrastructure but in the ethically gray throttling of the slow lanes, giving the illusion of more bandwidth. Maybe if ISPs weren’t so consistently anti-competitive we could have a little more faith in them.
The above is why I personally continue to believe in net neutrality and that a free and open Internet is more than just rhetoric. These are the characteristics that took the internet from being a handful of wired-together computers to an epoch defining technology for humanity.
I think this side could easily be labeled the “pro ISP” side. For real, take a look at the public stances of big name companies on this issue. On the neutrality side you have the tech giants (your Googles, your Microsofts) and on the ISP side, you have, well, the ISPs.
Basically, the anti-neutrality argument is that the government has no authority to regulate these private businesses, and that doing so would stifle innovation (see above), particularly not using decades-old legislation (the FCC claimed jurisdiction over ISPs by classifying them as public utilities under the Telecommunications Act). I have to agree with this qualifier: recycling old laws is short sighted and absolutely inappropriate and ineffective in legislating the tech industry (many of the articles we read pointed out the difference in pace between policy and technology). But, with the recent influx of career politicians in Congress, I’m sure our skilled lawmakers are up to the task.
P.S. I was originally going to write about censorship/ the Great Firewall of China since I thought it was more interesting, but I ended up deciding that I needed to read and learn more about it, and that I could deliver a more fleshed out blog post on net neutrality.