Been thinking a lot about Net Neutrality over the last few years, ever since the phrase became the new buzzword of the minute. So here we go : warning, this is going to get long.
Technology is great, today, you can whip out your phone, tablet, sit down at your computer and use these devices to augment your life, without needing to understand how any of it works. When you type an email, send a tweet, make a silly gif, you’re leveraging hundreds of years of development, but you can just do these things without having to know or understand any of that.
On the other hand if you do want to know how it works, you can keep following in down the many layers below the Graphic User Interface (GUI). Finally reaching the lowest level, where you’re looking at circuit diagrams and programming in PIC Assembly language.
This is both the great thing and also a curse of our high level of technology. When someone who only uses this technology sees something that might threaten their continued use of it in the way that they want. They understandably become alarmed and defensive. However not understanding how it works leads to easy fear mongering and fears that don’t line up at all with reality.
What does all this have to do with “Net Neutrality”? Well many of us use the internet, for all kinds of purposes. The internet is as large, varied and diverse as the world we live in. The technology underpinning this global communications and data network is extremely complex and can be difficult to understand. Only a few thousand people in the entire world truly understand how it all works, but millions use it every day.
Enter a peering dispute between Netflix’s Content Delivery Network (CDN) provider Level 3 and Comcast. Comcast decides to be incredibly rude and demand that Netflix pay twice for passing the same bits around and they send Level 3’s traffic straight into the dumpster. Thousands of users have trouble accessing and using Netflix, a service they pay monthly for and want to use whenever they please. Eventually Level 3 and Comcast come to an agreement. Everything works again and you can watch Weekend at Bernie’s to your heart’s content. But Wait!
Suddenly we’re in a crisis where last mile internet providers like Comcast and other cable companies are going to start controlling anything and everything you do and see on the internet. They will force all websites to pay them a fee just to be seen by their users. Users in turn will have to pay a fee for each type of service and website they visit on the internet. It will be just like a satellite TV subscription, only ten times worse.
Sounds scary right? I’m here to tell you that implementing a business model like this on the Internet is completely impossible. I couldn’t even tell you how it would be implemented, I wouldn’t know where to begin. How the internet works is completely antithetical to such a system. Plus, too many people use the internet for too many things. The idea that trying to stuff everything into walled gardens is going to be possible and accepted by anyone at this point is absurd. The ship has sailed, the genie has left the bottle.
Plus I’ll tell you a secret: It’s already been tried. Oh yes. AOL tried the walled garden where you can only use the services they provide in 1995. They failed miserably, and every other company that tried it did as well. They’re gone, dead and buried.
A similar model was tried with Cellphones, again it was a complete failure. When Cellular Providers opened things up and let 3rd parties start creating apps for cell phones that’s when things really took off and actually became profitable. Thus we have the iPhone and thousands of apps that exist today.
The greatness of the Internet comes from its openness. John Smith, Network Engineer, can come up with a brilliant idea tomorrow that will make the network 10x faster and more reliable and that idea can start to be implemented immediately.
Anyone can say anything they want and do so anonymously, reaching thousands or even millions of people. Freedom of speech at its pinnacle.
The success of the internet can also become its curse. With people becoming more reliant on and even addicted to this service it is seen as a need, rather than a want. People feel entitled to the internet, and it has to always work, if it doesn’t because deliberate tampering is happening people become extremely angry.
Politicians took advantage of this anger, telling people: Contact your representatives, and the magic word to say is “Title II”. What is Title II you ask? Well that’s a very good question. One that everyone should ask.
Title II is a lengthy piece of legislation that was created as a framework for regulating public utilities. Electricity, Water and Sewer, Landline Telephone service. These were seen as being essential services vital to daily life. You need a supply of water to live, you need electricity for heating, cooking and keeping a supply of food on hand. Telephones can be used to dial 911 in the event of a life threatening emergency. Thus the government saw fit to impose regulations on these services.
However by doing so they created an incredibly burdensome and complex piece of legislation. For instance, if a service provider subject to Title II decides they want to offer a new service, ANY new service at all; they must get approval from the government first. Can you see how that would be bad as applied to the Internet? No longer would just anyone be able to innovate and create something new, only companies who can afford to go through a lengthy approval process would be able to introduce new services. This has and does continue to prevent Telephone Companies from being more innovative and offering new services.
Now lets get to the issue of “Net Neutrality”, what does this phrase mean? For some it means “All Traffic being treated equally” for others it means not allowing Cable Companies to shoehorn in their old business model from Broadcast TV subscriptions into people’s internet connectivity. I’ve already addressed the latter option, let’s look at the former.
“Treating all traffic equally” sounds nice in principle, but is difficult in practice. Typically prioritization is used to optimize a network for the majority of its users. If everyone is watching cat videos, then cat videos will get priority. Plus things like streaming video need to be treated differently from other elements on a page in order to run smoothly.
What people really mean when they say this is that they want to maintain the status quo, everything works and they can access the content that they want, without any extra fees or nonsense thrown in.
The way you do this is not by imposing regulations. Say you want to outlaw prioritization, okay first we need to define what that means. You have to create operational definitions of how this will work,(good luck getting the FCC to do this in a way that makes sense) going into the technical nuts and bolts of it. Then ISPs of various types need to implement it. Finally you need some method of enforcing these new rules. This is where things get really sticky, do we create a small army of FCC enforcers? Who go to each ISP and make sure they are implementing these rules as written? Congratulations, you’ve just created your own Internet Gestapo, and made the service you want more expensive, less reliable and slower.
Politicians want nothing more than to have greater control over the internet. Why? Because it’s making tons of money, while at the same time is used as a tool to subvert authority and engage in free expression. Better get some more Tax revenue out of it, and see if we can reel in all that nasty free speech going on! Consumer protection never was or will be their goal.
All these issues created out of trying to solve a hypothetical problem that doesn’t and can’t even exist.
Most peering disputes last less than a day and are quickly worked out to the benefit of both parties. ISPs have an interest in keeping things running smoothly, and have done so without intervention. Often also without any of their users noticing anything wrong.
Now we do have companies offering to have certain services like Netflix no longer count toward bandwidth caps, particularly on cellular data plans, where the lowest and tightest caps exist. In this case, Netflix is paying Verizon or whoever for the bandwidth cost of their users. Essentially Netflix is paying your bandwidth cost for you. Your original cap remains the same. You gain something out of this arrangement, and lose absolutely nothing. Should we ban this practice under the guise of “Net Neutrality”? I say no, you may feel differently.
The real problem no one seems to want to talk about and the main way to avoid these issues is consumer choice. Being able to choose between more than one ISP would allow people to abandon companies like Comcast on mass if they start behaving badly. One way this can be implemented is by local municipalities running fiber and cable lines as a Co-op, where the city, town or county runs the lines and maintains them, bringing them back to a central hub. ISPs then connect into this Hub, and you the end user can choose whichever one you want to provide you with a connection to the rest of the internet. This is a change that needs to happen at the local level. The FCC and federal top down regulations are not a solution.
Don’t just take my word for it that “Net Neutrality” as devised by politicians and put forth by the FCC is not something you actually want.
I urge everyone concerned about this issue to read up on it and come to their own conclusions. Be an informed and consciences citizen.