An Argument for Why Net Neutrality May Not Be the Best Outcome
For anyone who has kept up on the battle for net neutrality, its obvious by now that Trump’s FCC will attempt to roll back the 2015 ruling that classifies internet as a utility and not a luxury. If this happens ISPs would have the ability to block or throttle speeds based on user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.
Why is this bad?
This past decade, ISPs have been investing tons of money in content (Comcast now owns NBCUniversal, AT&T owns DirecTV, and Verizon owns streaming service go-90). If net neutrality is destroyed, these companies would have the ability to throttle a customers speed for using a website or platform that they’re in competition with. For example, AT&T owns the SVOD service Fullscreen, which means they might not want their customers using Netflix and as a result may slow down, block access, or charge extra to the service in order to promote their own.
This might not be such a problem for a company as big as Netflix, whose CEO Reed Hastings recently commented on the subject saying, “We’re big enough to get the deals we want.”
But it would be a problem for emerging online businesses (new SVOD services, search engines, streaming platforms, etc) that don’t have a firm grip on the market just yet. In fact, a group of small Internet service providers recently sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to preserve the FCC’s net neutrality rules.
“As direct competitors to the biggest cable and telephone companies, we have reservations about any plan at the FCC that seeks to enhance their market power without any meaningful restraints on their ability to monopolize large swaths of the Internet,” the companies wrote.
So, if Net Neutrality is a good thing, why do people oppose it?
Those who oppose Net Neutrality do so because they feel it’s the product of an over reaching government. They are worried that, like most things the government gets involved with, it will end up a disaster. A road to more regulation and less investing.
“Companies like Google and Facebook and Netflix became household names precisely because we didn’t have the government micromanaging how the internet would operate,” Pai told Reason.com in a recent interview. He also went on to say that the Clinton-era decision not to regulate the Internet like a phone utility or a broadcast network was one of the most important factors in the rise of our new economy.
There is also a belief that companies which take up more bandwidth than others should pay more. Netflix for example consumes a huge amount of peak traffic bandwidth, which costs ISPs money, same with Pornography sites. As Alexandra Petri of Washington Post once wrote, “To use one of those dreaded analogies, if you are constantly driving huge trucks, full of big deliveries of pornography, along a road, why shouldn’t you have to pay more for the road’s upkeep?”
Both sides have valid arguments, though those who oppose net neutrality are often the ISPs that would most benefit from the deterioration of the regulations.
But maybe net neutrality isn’t the best solution…
Net Neutrality is a great concept. The idea that access to content shouldn’t be blocked or throttled is something worth fighting for, everyone should have access to fast reliable speeds no matter what websites they’re visiting, but that doesn’t solve the U.S.’ real Internet problem — a lack of competition. Internet service in the U.S. is slow, over priced, and a few steps away from being a monopoly. Even with net neutrality, there are only a few ISPs most can choose from AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, no wonder the US ranks in the bottom 20 when it comes to internet speeds. What Internet users could really benefit from is a commitment to open-access policies.
With the help of a few colleagues, Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, conducted a study for the Federal Communications Commission. The results showed that a significant reason other countries had managed to both expand access and lower rates to internet access over the last decade was a commitment to open-access policies. These policies required companies that build networks to sell access to rivals that then invest in, and compete on, the network.
“These countries realize that innovation happens in electronics and services — not in laying cable,” Yochai wrote. “If every company has to dig its own holes, the price of entry is too high and competition falters; over time, innovation lags, and the goal of broader and better access suffers.”
So now what?
The fight for net neutrality is an important one. Some opponents of the ruling claim that without it, market forces would compel internet service providers to stay within in the guidelines the 2015 ruling established. Unfortunately there are many instances in recent history where this isn’t the case (here is a list of past violations compiled by the Free Press). However, these “violations” would be of little concern if consumers had 20+ ISPs to choose from than just three.
And because of that it would seem net neutrality is not the real problem; the real problem is the monopoly that companies like AT&T and Comcast hold over the US market. Arguing for net neutrality is just arguing for the status quo, when people should be arguing for ‘open access’ rules that would give everyone cheaper, faster broadband.