The first time I heard the term “net neutrality” was in the fall of 2008. I was working for a marketing agency that did public affairs work, and we had a client who was involved in the issue, which was beginning to gain some traction in Washington.
When I was brought onto the team working on net neutrality, I was given an initial “brain dump” about tech policy. This stuff is complicated, and to be perfectly honest, it took me months to truly wrap my mind around even the basics.
Today, my head is ringing with those memories as new debates crop up due to the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to repeal its previous net neutrality rules.
So, what is net neutrality?
Proponents tell you that net neutrality is about protecting the “fair and open internet” from the evils of big scary corporations that want to engage in “data discrimination,” which will create a “tiered internet” full of “fast lanes” for some.
That was the argument used in February 2015 when the FCC passed, in a partisan 3-2 vote, the Title II Net Neutrality Rules. Net neutrality rules went into effect shortly thereafter.
But are those claims true?
And whether they are true or untrue, is this actually a system that we want, and would such a system leave consumers better off?
Let’s start by deconstructing a classic argument that is at the core of this debate. Neutrality, at its core, boils down to the belief that “all data packets should be treated equally.”
In other words, no matter what type of data is being transmitted over the internet, there should be no ability for anyone to selectively choose certain types of data as being more important than others.
But the entire premise of this notion is wrong. Of course data should be treated unequally. Not all data packets are the same. John Dvorak, a columnist for PC Magazine, explained it thusly:
“All packets have never been equal, nor should they be. Voice and video packets have to be prioritized over text packets for obvious quality-of-service reasons. Does anyone believe that a remote-control surgical operation controlled over the net when someone’s life is at stake should have the same priority as a cat video? Who thinks that way?”
More to the point, though, we need to back up and consider one of the most critical problems with the internet.
It is finite. It may feel expansive and unlimited, but infrastructure does, in fact, limit it.
Former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska once, rather hilariously, referred to the internet as a “series of tubes.” In the early days of the internet we all called it the “information superhighway.” While both of these analogies are overly simplistic and not terribly descriptive, they do at least get one thing right — there is a limited capacity.
The tube can only hold so much material, and the highway can only fit so many cars.
It is an issue of bandwidth. There is a certain amount of it, depending on the infrastructure of a system, and more usage than can be handled slows down service.
So what happens when “all data packets are equal” and the world develops an appetite for massive amounts of streaming video? Online gaming? Data hogs come in many varieties, but they all suck data at an unbelievable rate. If we are completely agnostic about data, what do you think will result?
Crummy, frustrating service. For everyone.
Are we that offended at the idea of an internet that grants some form of tiered treatment that allows companies like Netflix to pay more money for preferential “fast lane access,” which will allow them to guarantee the quality of their streaming service to their customers?
More importantly, by allowing companies to set up those types of arrangements, they are able to raise capital that allows them to make major investments in infrastructure to serve the data hogs, improving the internet for everyone.
You may find that trivial, but when companies spend billions to upgrade a system, how do you think they cover their investment? By removing a realistic way to recoup it, you are disincentivizing infrastructure upgrades.
The massive, universal spread of broadband across the country happened because of the flexibility of the capitalistic model. If the FCC’s net neutrality rules had been enacted in the 1990s, the growth and innovation of the internet would simply not have happened as quickly, nor would it have revolutionized our economy the same way.
So when the FCC votes to end these stifling regulations, do yourself a favor and relax. Your internet will be just fine.