When Net Neutrality concerns started to rise up 5 – 10 years ago, it seemed like an open and shut case. Obviously we want the net to remain neutral, but at what cost?
The Internet is humanity’s most powerful instrument of free speech and commerce, legislation that has power over the content of internet traffic has the potential to impact our speech and pretty much everything we do.
It is extremely important that we are extremely sure we want governments to have legislative power over content. Maybe we should get down from our soap boxes to really make sure we’re getting behind the right cause here and we’re not pushing for something we’re going to regret.
In the beginning…
The original hysteria surrounding net neutrality in the mid-to-late-00s was a reaction to throttling and network management practices ISPs were implementing at the time. Bittorrent and video streaming were gaining momentum, eating up larger and larger heaps of bandwidth and ISPs weren’t having it. They enacted network policies to throttle certain types of packets, limiting our ability access content.
Us nerds weren’t having it! We believed we should be able to access anything on the internet we damn well pleased. We cried chicken little.
If Comcast was throttling bittorrent, what was going to stop them from slowing down competing video content when they bought NBC? What would stop them from charging a new startup for the fastest access to their customers?
We demanded the government step in to regulate this impending problem! We demanded a neutral network! “All bits are equal!” we proclaimed.
For the sake of innovation and progress, the internet should be a level playing field for all. Reddit and the New York Time should get the same treatment over the network. Bittorrent and Bitcoin should both flow easily.
All of this is perfectly reasonable and I’m not about to argue against it. But I question whether net neutrality actually accomplishes the level playing field we desire.
Level Playing Field
The history of the internet has shown that reliable (fast, unencumbered) access to a popular service is not a key factor to their success. Every success app or service has gone through a growth period when servers constantly grind to a halt and access becomes difficult. We put up with fail whales for years! Years before Twitter, I distinctly recall when Livejournal was facing such growth pressure that they charged a small fee for access to premium servers guaranteed to be faster and more reliable. Even tonight HQ Trivia Live continues to have major server lag while hundreds of thousands of people compete for prizes. Hell, the horrendously throttled bittorent that we all complained about in 2010 is as popular as ever.
If history continues to repeat itself, then reliable, fast connections will continue to play only a minor role in the popularity of an internet service.
An unregulated network could lead to artificial and long term connectivity issues for young and/or competing services. But, corporations have a much simpler, old school tool at their disposal. A tool that is completely legal, completely out of scope of the net neutrality discussion. Marketing and cooperative agreements.
Here are just a few real wold examples of business practices that are currently happening:
- 6 months Free Netflix when you sign up for Shaw TV + Internet. I bet this is absolutely tanking demand for Shaw’s on VOD services.
- 6 months Free Spotify with a Rogers 2-year Share Everything plan. I wonder if Rdio would still be around if Spotify had not been making these sorts of aggressive deals.
- The Netflix appliance. Many people are unaware their Netflix content is physically hosted inside your ISP’s network. One of the main reasons Netflix loads so fast is because the packets rarely hit the wider internet.
These are just a few examples from Canada, where we have some semblance of Net Neutrality. Promotions like this have a huge impact on which players win and lose in the marketplace.
Stop The Presses
Imagine it’s the 19th century and you run a number of printing presses. Imagine you have discovered a magical supply of parchment, ink, and a mechanism that magically runs the presses automatically, pumping copies of any newspaper, handbill or pamphlet you feed in. It’s neutral.
You have the capacity to produce more paper every month than could be read by the world’s population. You’re presses are in high demand and you have contracts with your clients to provide them unlimited printing services.
Once your business has been running for a while, you start to inspect some of the documents your clients have been printing. You discover that some of them are advertising a service that competes with your brother-in-law, get rich schemes, pages full of one word “spam” (whatever that is) and other complete and utter garbage. You can’t print this stuff!
But you know that if you completely refuse to print your client’s publication, they will be quite upset, they might even leave for that other supplier. Instead, you decide to print their copies slightly slower and hope they don’t notice the bundle is a little smaller the next time the picks up a shipment.
When your clients eventually catch on, they are furious! Freedom of the Press has been a thing for quite some time now and they believe their rights are being violated.
Imagine your country is governed by a reasonable king, who rightly agrees, your clients freedom of the press is being violated. A new law is passed demanding that all presses print whatever papers they are handed, regardless of content, under penalty of death.
This is a good thing! Trolls and merchants alike rejoice in the streets!
A couple of years pass and the law has come up for review. In this time the king’s advisors have caught wind that these printing presses have been used print all manner of nonsense that the King would find displeasing: somehow has smuggled out his prized book collection and is making copies for anyone to read! A clever foreigner has devised a scheme whereby the presses themselves act as a sort of currency, nobody is able to explain exactly how it works, but it’s become quite valuable.
The King is very unhappy. At the stroke of midnight as the law is about to expire, a small little clause to the law “*Under the discretion of His Royal Highness.”
Is this still a good thing?
The premise of Net Neutrality is based on a slippery slope that imagines a worst case scenario where ISPs:
- provide preferential “fast-lanes” for favorable service and/or throttle
- charge differing access fees for different sites
- outright block competing services
- all of the above
- something even worse that I’ve totally missed.
I’m not so sure this slippery slope is plausible.
As I understand it – from the years 2005 – 2015 US ISPs operated within a framework where they had a lot of leeway to discriminate over packets. There are numerous examples of ISPs (ahem Comcast) attempting bandwidth throttling schemes during this period. Everytime they eventually caved to consumer pressure… despite very poor competition.
So, history leads me to believe that with a vigilent group of watchers and a small amount of competition, we can successfully keep this worst case scenario at bay.
In the future, I wonder if net neutrality becomes less and less of an issue as bandwidth capacity continues to increase year-over-year. An ISP has little incentive to throttle bandwidth when even the slowest of slow speeds are fast enough to serve content with minimal network impact. I think it might be happening already. For example, my ISP (kudos Shaw) which previously had soft bandwidth caps and various levels of throttling, now just have totally unlimited access. For no reason, they have no real competition, there was no market pressure.
Re-evaluating the equation
By definition, net neutrality legislation gives the government oversight over the content of bits traveling across the internet. A best case scenario, blanket law that said “All packets are to be treated equal, no blocking, no throttling. Peroid. No questions asked.” is a judgement call. It is a call in our favour, but it is also a framework whereby the government will discuss and attach future internet freedom related issues. It is a slippery slope into the danger zone of internet censorship.
The real debate should not be surrounding whether or not we want a neutral internet. Of course we do.
The real debate should be about which slippery slope we consider more dangerous:
- Cooperate interests shutting down the free and open internet in favour a closed toll-way of terror.
- Current and future governments using internet legislation as a stepping stone to hamper our freedoms.
In this bloggers opinion, history has shown us that voting with your wallet is much more effective than… actual voting.