On Net Neutrality

Posted by Matt Farmer on December 17, 2017 · 6 mins read

In December of 2010 I wrote a piece titled “What Net Neutrality Means For You” shortly after the FCC took its initial action on Net Neutrality. In light of the recent FCC ruling to scrap the subsequent 2015 rule that permitted the FCC to enforce Net Neutrality principles, I thought it would be fitting to revisit that topic with some thoughts from this past week.

About discouraging investment

On Thursday the FCC voted to roll back the rules that were enacted under the Obama Administration. The Associated Press summarizes what the expected impact will be in the short and long term in this article. Additionally, the AP outlines the central objection of the telecommunications companies:

The big telecommunications companies had lobbied hard to overturn the rules, contending they are heavy-handed and discourage investment in broadband networks.

Wired poked some holes in this argument. The study cited in the FCC proposal to roll back the rules was industry funded, and asserted that there’s a correlation of decreased spending after the rules were enacted. Setting aside the post hoc ergo propter hoc nature of that argument, Wired illustrated that the reality is a mixed bag at best. For example:

  • Comcast made statements to their shareholders that the Title II classification was not negatively impacting their business, but they did have to delay a streaming service (sounds like that rubbed them the wrong way)
  • AT&T has been working to lean on software for improved performance, decreasing their hardware investment accordingly
  • Sprint has been cutting spending since before the rules were passed, but the then-CTO admitted that the Title II classification wouldn’t impact them
  • Charter has consistently been increasing spending since 2014 to increase speed

… and the list goes on.

From my vantage point I’ve actually seen a surprising amount of investment in infrastructure in the Atlanta area. Comcast and AT&T have both launched residential gigabit services within months of Google Fiber announcing their intent to move in. Comcast has also increased data caps for residential customers over the last year or two without me noticing.

It sure doesn’t feel like investment has been hindered since 2015.

About that light-touch approach

Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman, seems quite proud of his work. From the AP article linked above:

“What is the FCC doing today?” asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. “Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence.”

Let’s briefly discuss some other things that have been true for most of the internet’s existence.

Pai conveniently neglects to mention here that for most of the internet’s existence there has been a strong delineation between content providers and internet service providers. He also doesn’t mention that for most of the internet’s existence it’s been mostly irrelevant in Presidential elections. He doesn’t mention that for most of the internet’s existence citizens have not used it to access social or government services, educate themselves, or exercise their First Amendment rights.

Did you know that in 2014 the country of Estonia launched an E-Residency program? While primarily designed for businesses who wish to have an EU presence, the program in Estonia is certainly a forbearer of what is to come as governments look for ways to become more accessible and efficient.

The internet has become very much like the streets through which we travel to do the important business of life. All signs indicate that it will become even more so in the years to come. This has not been true for most of the internet’s existence. As that happens, having good rules for how the companies that own the pavement can behave is ultimately required for a successful society to continue to build on top of it.

Chairman Pai is either laughably ignorant that the reality around him has changed, or he’s willingly ignoring it for political convenience. Either option should disqualify him from having a voice in the matter.

This way be dragons

Now, as in 2010, there are very good reasons for the FCC, or some other entity, to monitor and referee how privately-held monopolies riddled with conflicts of interest steward the foundation of our digital society.

Though internet providers have claimed they are not interested in blocking the services we value, the AP rightly notes:

But such things have happened before. The Associated Press in 2007 found Comcast was blocking some file-sharing services. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services — which competed with its voice-call business — from the iPhone until 2009.

The astute reader would rightly observe that there’s a razor thin difference between censoring a competing service and censoring a competing opinion.

A path forward

There are proven strategies for managing the ever-increasing network demand that an ever-increasing population with an ever-increasing variety of content will produce. There are proven strategies for dealing with monopolies that misbehave. There are proven strategies for dealing with conflicts of interest.

We need only use them.