Wait – what the crap is this all about?
First of all – what is Net Neutrality? I think the best way to describe net neutrality to a layperson is to first establish some groundwork. (If you already understand Net Neutrality skip down to ‘Political Implications’) Here are two different concepts:
- A Utility Service (e.g. electricity, phone)
- The Service Usage (the devices using electricity – or the conversations over the phone lines)
It is vitally important to understand that the two items are not the same thing. You may be thinking – well, duh – of course they aren’t the same thing, but the foundation of arguments around Net Nuetrality rely on this understanding. Again – here’s a basic analogy:
I pay the electric company for the amount (volume) of electricity I use. I do not pay the electric company based on what I happen to use the electricity for. Whether I am simply plugging in a clock/radio – or I am playing Mario tunes with a Tesla Coil, the electric company is only charging me for the amount of electricity I use (very little with the radio, quite a bit with the Tesla Coil).
Again - Utility Provider does not equal Service Usage.
Net Neutrality is basically legislation that applies the same definitions to internet bandwidth service. I pay Comcast a certain amount to provide me with an agreed upon amount of bandwidth service. I do not pay Comcast based on what I use that amount of service for.
Yeah great…and I should give a crap because…?
You should care because many Internet Service Providers are trying to change this definition with the strong-arm of government. Essentially – they are attempting to remove ‘Net Neutrality’ and define the two concepts (service provider – usage) as one. What Service Providers want to do is to be able to, not only charge you for how much service you use – but also, to charge you for what you use that service for.
For instance, Comcast already attempts to charge you more for having multiple computers connected to your cable modem. The question is – why? Let’s say I am paying for 5 Megabits (mbs) of service (I am simplifying the technical jargon so forget about uploading/downloading speed, etc). I should have 5 Megabits of service, regardless of how many computers I hook up to it.
It’s much worse than this though because, not only do Service Providers want to control what devices you hook to your service – the also want to control what types of content you transfer over their network. What the crap is that? I am paying for 5 Megabits of service – End of discussion. As long as I don’t exceed that amount – or do something destructive to their network (this would probably happen in my Tesla Coil project above) – how do they get to decide what I do with the service I pay for? 5mbs = 5mbs, period. They are service providers – NOT content controllers. This would be analogous to the phone company charging me based on what topics I discuss on the phone.
Again – the two concepts: Service Provider and Usage are not the same thing.
Obviously – the reason that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) want to do this is because they want to charge you differently for certain specific types of service usage.
This brings up the issue of network ‘overbooking’ and ‘tiered internet’.
Let’s say Comcast provides you with 5Mbs (megabits) of service. They are banking on the fact that once in a while you are on your computer, checking ESPN, or email – or whatever. This of course only uses a tiny amount of bandwidth, given you are essentially paying for 100% constant 5Mbs of service. This is why the Comcast fine print really reads “up to 5Mbs.”
The problem is that current internet technological advances have brought about things that use much more bandwidth at a much more consistent rate (unlike the once in a while ‘getting on email’) such as VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol – basically transmitting voice data over a network), streaming video services, and Bit-Torrent and file sharing (torrents work by connecting a swarm of users together to share content – thus increasing the speed of transfers since there are many sources to send and receive data from, rather than one or two). These technologies and services obviously use much more bandwidth than the occasional user getting on ‘teh Internetz’ to ‘do the computer.’
In short - internet and device technological advances have out paced the network providers (a prime example of the ultimate free market provided by the internet) who have actually over-promised users about their internet service. The simple fact is that Comcast can’t even begin to provide 5Mbs of service to all of its users. So where do the service providers turn to? The government (more on this in the next section).
Next, we have the idea of Tiered Internet:
Certain types high bandwidth network content would be appropriated to a different (more expensive) tier of service provision however the Internet Service Providers sees fit. At this point we have just breached the divide between service provider, and content – creating a sort of middleman. In a crappy way – the ISPs would be able to choose what content fits into the higher tiers and what belongs in lower ones – and charge accordingly.
Many people (including myself, who work in the online software industry) see this as a huge impediment on the free market nature of the internet – as innovative internet content providers such as YouTube, Google, Hulu, or services like Bit-Torrent could end up at the mercy of the internet service providers (two very different industries).
Obviously, there could be a serious stifling impact on advancement of online companies and technology – not to mention a detrimental regulatory effect on the internet free market, imposed by the service provider (who exist in a different market).
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I generally take a conservative stance and am a huge proponent of free markets and limited government. It seems like many in government, especially conservatives are touchy about what they perceive to be ‘government regulation’ of the free market. In my view – Net Neutrality does not violate these free market ideas, In fact – quite the reverse is true, and I will explain why.
In the case of Net Neutrality – opponents that use the ‘free market’ argument usually make a case along these lines: “Well, the service providers own the data lines – so they should be free to do whatever they want with them.” Normally I might agree with this – except, arguably the Internet is more of a Service/Utility than anything else. More importantly – Net Neutrality is simply a principal that defines business types, and not really some sort of governmental regulatory meddling. (Not to mention – the un-regulated internet is itself, a prime example of successful laissez-faire capitalism in a free market system.)
In fact – it is partly the governments fault, in my opinion, for fostering opposition to Net Neutrality. For instance -the legal system has foolishly attacked network service providers for ‘supporting’ illegal internet activity (usage) - such as illegal file sharing. In doing so – they are incorrectly presuming that the two concepts of Net Neutrality, are one and the same. This would be like suing the water company over someone who drowns a child in bathtub water.
What the government needs to do is fairly simple: properly define the two concepts of Net Neutrality. In doing so – it must grant service providers with immunity from legal proceedings with regard to the usage of their services. Also – it should define Internet Access as a bandwidth (or time) based service – not a content service. Note that this doesn’t require some huge new government bureaucracy - it simply demands a proper legal definition.
Finally – it bears mentioning that it is a misconception that conservatives are 100% anti any sort of government programs or regulations. Obviously – if that were the case – they would be anti-government. (Another important distinction is that corporations are not necessarily ideological -neither liberal, nor conservative- but, as in the case of Net Neutrality – are instead opportunistic). There clearly need to be some laws in place to protect competition in a free market – such as the one created by the internet. Otherwise you open up the playing field to ‘crony capitalism‘ which essentially eliminates real competition, and thus is a destructive force to the fundamentals of a free market. Essentially, without Net Neutrality, there would be blending of two different industries – one infrastructure, and one data.
But what about situations of national security?
The nature of national security situations and legislation are vastly complex, so the following are simply some of my thoughts:
The only case where the ISPs should be requested to hand over any sort of user information should be a the situation where the government has tracked communication from an identified threat to a certain location or person. Even in this case – I don’t think the ISP should be allowed to record, log, or be required to hand over any information other than location and perhaps usage amounts. Location and Usage Amounts are clearly within the jurisdiction of a service provider – so that only seems fair. Neither should the ISP be held legally responsible for the content of the users transmissions unless there is clear evidence that the ISP had anything to do with the particular users involved other than providing them with service.
In other civil cases I think there are plenty of ways that the Justice Department could track illegal activity – but this should not involve the service providers.
Essentially – the service providers should not have any business meddling with the content transmitted over their networks. I probably sound like a broken record, but I can’t repeat this enough.
So we should like Joe Biden. I mean – he’s probably pro-government right?
Not so fast.
In the midst of the torrents (no pun intended) of glistening putrescent horse excrement Hollywood, the media, and the Obama campaign have been hosing Sarah Palin with 24/7, there is one man whose record has quietly been ignored (ok fine…one man besides Senator Obama). That would be Senator Joe Biden.
What is his record with regard to Net Neutrality? To put it bluntly, it completely sucks. Consider the following less-than-sunny appraisal from Gizmodo:
Maybe you don’t care about the doings in Washington, but you may want to know that Biden considers a lot of what you do care about criminal activity. Here’s what I’m talking about:
• He asked Congress to spend $1 billion to monitor peer-to-peer activity. (In fairness, much of this is to prevent child pornography, but the tactic is apparently a little blunt.)
• Two Biden bills have been explicitly anti-encryption, because you know, encryption makes it hard for the FBI to read people’s e-mails.
• He has expressed support for internet taxes and internet filtering in schools and libraries.
• The RIAA seems to be one of his best buddies: Biden sponsored a bill that would restrict recording of songs from satellite and net radio, and another one that would make it a felony to “trick” a computer into playing back unauthorized songs or running bootlegged videogames. That latter one died when Verizon, Microsoft, Apple, eBay and Yahoo all argued against it.
• Biden was one of just four senators invited to attend a celebration of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act hosted by the MPAA’s Jack Valenti and the RIAA’s Hillary Rosen, two of American file-sharer’s most wanted.
• When he was asked in 2006 about proposing net-neutrality laws, he said there was no need, since any bit-filtering violations would provoke such a huge public ruckus they’d have to hold congressional hearings anyway—and they’d be standing-room only.
If you think that’s dire – try this article from Yahoo News:
By choosing Joe Biden as their vice presidential candidate, the Democrats have selected a politician with a mixed record on technology who has spent most of his Senate career allied with the FBI and copyright holders, who ranks toward the bottom of CNET’s Technology Voters’ Guide, and whose anti-privacy legislation was actually responsible for the creation of PGP
Also, check out Biden’s voting record at the CNET Technology Vote.
Basically – it’s a bipartisan FAIL when it comes to Net Neutrality. McCain’s also sucks, Obama’s is about 50%, and Palin’s is unknown. Clearly neither ticket is all that hot on this issue – but this should come as no surprise to conservatives like myself. Again, government fails to understand and keep up with free market innovations. I never saw that coming…(cough *sarcasm* cough)
The issue here for conservatives (as well as others) is that Net Neutrality is not about government messing with the free markets. Internet providers did not create the online free market – they created the technology that supports it. Like I mentioned above – Net Neutrality is about a legal distinction between service providers and content, not a new government bureaucracy. In effect – the advances of technology created the ultimate free market online. This is similar to the way that the provision of electricity to homes created a a whole new market for electrical devices. A strong argument can be made that the proper definition of Net Neutrality actually protects the laissez-faire capitalism of the online free market.
The government needs to acknowledge the creation of the internet free market – and protect it. That’s what Net Neutrality is all about. You should contact your senators and representatives, regardless of political party, and clarify what this is all about.
Sean brought up some great questions in the comments that I’m elevating into this post (as if it wasn’t long enough…ha! Complex issue though – needs much discussion.)
The issue with tiering the Internet is a huge concern of mine personally. As an entrepreneur who plans to make most of the money in my lifetime from Internet related ventures, I do not want to have to get in bed with Comcast or whoever the *service providers* might be to make sure that my product gets delivered with equal emphasis as CNN, ESPN, or whoever is already part of the party.
I also greatly am troubled by the call to end encryption by the FBI (as Gizmodo.com reported). Encryption is very important to a lot of the technologies that are developed and I personally don’t want anybody to sniff my emails/credit cards.
What do you think of city governments becoming more responsible for acting as ISP’s? It seems that a city could ding each of its citizens with a little bit of a tax hike and cut out the Comcast & Time Warners altogether… Or is your point that the ISP’s are not the enemy but rather the government and its inability to define the rules?
As far as city run internet service goes – I think it is kind of a double-edged sword. The obvious advantage would be the universal access, and certainly (perhaps not though…) a more clear definition between service and content. However – as in other government solutions, there are many potential downsides.
For one – anything powered by tax dollars become involuntary. You will be paying for a service – simply because it exists – regardless of quality. This could have serious ramifications, especially with a service as technical as internet connectivity. (Low speeds in your neck of town? Highly unlikely your taxes with reflect that) A government solution (similar to ‘crony capitalism’) effectively eliminates competition and choice. Sure – you could say you get some choice, such as a vote on the program every couple of years, but contrast that with our current system which constitutes a voluntary vote-with-dollars each month. (I hire Comcast, bums that they are, to provide me with internet service – and I can fire them at will.)
Perhaps you could argue for a government solution, along-side private service providers. This is problematic also because the tax funding the government ISP would then have to become voluntary – giving people an option to pay for the city service vs. the private service. Or it wouldn’t and you would just have to pay for both.
I want to reiterate that I’m in no way trying to make a case that Comcast, Time Warner and others are some shining example of free market perfection. (Actually – I think that they, in many ways are attempting to subvert free market competition.) To answer your last question – I think both parties are to blame. Private ISPs are opportunistically trying to take over and control the market – mainly because the government has failed to properly define what the internet is. (clearly – The Internet != internet access.)
What the government can and should do is make sure that there are clear and fair rules/laws governing the internet service market – mostly defining internet service as one industry, wholly separated from the actual internet entity (content). Most importantly – like I mentioned above – the government must acknowledge that the internet is itself a free marketplace outside the jurisdiction of the internet service providers.
Finally – the government should do everything in it’s power to encourage competition in the internet service industry. It should be wary of crony capitalism and regional monopolies. If it is going to allow a giant like Comcast, then it should be equally welcoming and encouraging to competitors like Verizon FIOS, etc… not allowing ‘deals’ where a certain provider is granted exclusive access to a certain area. The more service options local citizens are able to choose from, the better.
Oh yeah – and the whole ‘end encryption’ movement is completely nonsensical. Internet Data Security is a crucial facet for internet market success. Clearly – the arguments for encryption are legion. If the FBI is concerned about monitoring illegal online activity – trying to do away with encryption is about as foolish a concept as gun control. You universally punish every responsible user, for a small % of miscreants. The FBI needs to look elsewhere because ending encryption is a ludicrous solution to the problem.