Why the Big ISPs Are Lying to You About Net Neutrality
I wrote about the Net Neutrality debate back in August, and it’s time for an update because you are being lied to on a daily basis by the people who control your access to the Internet. It’s time to get educated.
First, the basics. Last year a federal court of appeals in Washington, D.C., declared that the FCC lacked the authority to prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from restricting the websites their customers could visit. That’s a big deal if you care about an open internet.
An analogy here should be useful. As hackneyed as it is, imagine the internet as a highway over which information flows. The only way you can access any of that information is via an an off-ramp, and the ISPs own all of them. Get your internet from Comcast? You’re at the end of a Comcast off-ramp. The traffic on the highway below you, like the traffic on the internet, flows unimpeded regardless of rules governing the on-ramps and off-ramps. But you can’t access any of it without your off-ramp controller (your ISP), and they are fighting as hard as they can to be allowed to make decisions about what you are and are not allowed to see.
After the D.C. Circuit decision, ISPs are free to restrict your access to websites for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all. Imagine not being able to view a newspaper editorial critical of the Comcast-NBC merger because Comcast doesn’t want you to read it. Want to post a negative comment about the service you are getting from AT&T? Too bad; AT&T has decided they don’t want you to have access to any complaint websites. Well, damn it, that strikes you as
wrong so you try to surf on over to Clearwire to see if they have services that would better suit your needs. You’re going to strike out there, too; AT&T doesn’t want you visiting the sites of their competitors, now do they?
But I’m being unfair here in the name of sensationalism. While the scenarios I outline above are all perfectly legal right now, the big ISPs don’t plan to block individual web pages because that would anger you without raising revenue. So what do they plan? I’ll tell you: the ISPs want the power to charge websites for access to their off-ramps. Don’t know why you should care? Read on.
The great thing about the internet is its complete openness. Let’s take local restaurants as an example. Despite the fact that it is a giant, international conglomerate, Pizza Hut doesn’t really have an advantage over a locally-owned restaurant on the Internet because, if you enter a search for, say, “East Atlanta pizza joints,” Pizza Hut will pop up alongside with a bunch of local places; you see them all and can make whatever choice you want.
But what if companies were forced to pay for access to your eyes? What happens then is obvious: the big guys get bigger and the small guys get dead because the Internet has suddenly turned into a high-cost toll road. Pizza Hut will pay whatever it takes to get
into your computer because they can afford to. Grand Central Pizza in East Atlanta Village? They won’t because they can’t afford it. Great pizza, but they will die a fast death just like the small town stores died when Wal-Mart came to town. Except it’s not just like that. At least with Wal-Mart you could argue that lives were being enriched by saving money and having access to a wider variety of crappy consumer goods; you can’t even invent an argument that less openness on the Internet is any good for anyone except those who are already rich. And those who hate porn; but that’s a topic for a blog I don’t write.
That’s one example. Let’s talk about a second where the answer is not quite so obvious: NetFlix. The latest statistics say that 20% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the evening is NetFlix traffic. 20%. That’s a lot, and the AT&Ts of the world are complaining. “My God,” they say, “we built this Internet thing and now NetFlix is using it to make all this money. Worse than that, they are sending
so much traffic down our highway, we are having to build extra lanes just to accommodate them. They ought to at least have to pay for those extra lanes.” Reasonable? Maybe.
Whether or not you buy this ISP whining depends, as does everything in life, on your perspective. Is NetFlix the company causing Internet traffic or are NetFlix subscribers’ demand for more video causing it? Does UPS cause truck traffic or is it caused by consumers ordering stuff? You get the point. Let’s assume for a moment that the ISP complaint is valid and thereby assume that they really are having to build extra capacity to accommodate NetFlix traffic. Who should pay for that? ISP customers or NetFlix itself? Think about it for a second. Really look at it from all angles. See the problem? Right. It’s a trick question: you are going to be paying for the network upgrades one way or another in increased charges from your ISP or increased charges from NetFlix (so they can pay the ISP tolls).
And now we get to the heart of the net neutrality question which, really, is the most basic of public policy questions: is it better for our country for websites to pay for the Internet by paying ISPs to reach ISP customers or is it better for the users of the Internet, the ISPs’ customers themselves, to pay for it? The answer is that ISP customers should pay. I’ll tell you why, and my answer is not subject to debate.
When end users pay for the internet, the determination of which websites fail and which survive is made entirely by their utility to their target market on the web. When websites have to pay ISPs for access to ISP customers, the determination of which websites
survive and which fail is made entirely by the money they have generated or raised based on things they have done outside the web. Why? Because in a world where you have to pay to reach customers on the Internet, you need a pile of cash to pay the ISP on the day you launch your website.
As I said, not subject to debate. With net neutrality, the field was open for Amazon to be born. Without net neutrality, the leading consumer goods site on the web would be Wal-Mart or Macy’s or some other old-economy big-box retailer. iTunes would never have launched and you’d be getting all your music in the form of CDs bought from the Tower Records website. Really.
So don’t believe the nutty Republican blow-hards who have been completely co-opted by AT&T and Verizon lobbyists into claiming that net neutrality is an effort to control the internet; one day these poor Congressmen are going to look back at the water they carried for the giant ISPs and cringe at how they allowed themselves to be used.
The FCC doesn’t want to control the internet at all, and neither do Democrat lawmakers. In fact, all the FCC’s pending Net Neutrality Rules do is tell ISPs they are not allowed to choose what traffic
can take the off-ramps or charge extra tolls for certain traffic leaving the highway. That’s it. Very simple: if you want to see a website, you get to see a website because the ISPs are not allowed to make decisions about what you can and can’t see. That’s the Internet we all love, preserved. Thank you, FCC
Now that you understand the issue, you may be a little concerned given that the muttonheads in the House of Representatives passed a Joint Resolution of Disapproval purporting to overturn the Net Neutrality Rules. Don’t worry. The Joint Resolution has the same limitations and power as a law: to go into effect it must now be passed by the Senate and then signed by the president. It has almost no chance of passing the Senate and no chance at all of being signed by the president. So relax. If things change and there are court appeals and you need to get worried again, I’ll let you know. For now, surf wherever you want and thank the FCC for protecting your ability to do so.
UPDATE, August 22, 2012: Think The Tired Donkey was crying wolf here? Verizon has now made its plan explicit. Check it.