On Net Neutrality

I try to hide my disdain for the conventional political camps nowadays.

Like… the Republican party lately has seemed intent on just dismantling everything Obama put into place, but without any real argument as to why it should be dismantled. In general, the republicans claim to be in favor of small goverment, but in practice their policies are more in favor of the wealthy and big businesses.

And I know I fall into line on a lot of Democrat ideologies as far as running the country, but I don’t fall in with all of them. I think it’s pretty obvious that the usual Democratic party’s answer to a problem is usually something along the lines of “make a law about it” without regard to whether a law is necessary. Additionally, the Democrats frequently overstep their authorities and push their authority where it isn’t wanted or welcomed.

But at least I can understand why your average household republican or democrat would like the ideologies they do. I can understand why someone would say “I’m a republican because I think that state and local governments know their states better” or “I’m a democrat because I believe the environmental and LGBT movements should be supported.”  And I really don’t want to alienate my people just because I disagree with them. (Granted, there are issues about which I will argue about on a moral basis, not a political one. Mostly these issues involve various forms of discrimination or the solidification of existing challenges for those in poverty.)

And then there are other fringe parties out there, of course. The Green party exists, I think. There’s a communist (as in, “Seize the means of production”) who populates my facebook feed with his nonviolent (but unrealistic) ideal scenario.

There are also libertarians. Some of them are more tolerable. They would simply prefer to let the free market operate, and would rather not interfere or choose winners in markets, and I can understand the logic there. At least some of the field of economics supports that. Some, like my dad, have given up on the idea that those in government are acting in anyone’s best interest, and would rather have fewer areas in which government corruption can run rampant.

And then there are the “Taxation is theft” libertarians. There’s something that rankles me about the idea of someone saying they shouldn’t have some skin in the game when they live in a society built at least in part on the projects of a government funded by taxes, and with a family whose safety and economic stability has been maintained at least in a small part by the fact that our country has laws, regulations, and policies in place. It just seems naive and privileged.

My ability to keep silent about politics waxes and wanes with the political topic of the week. Some weeks I keep my mouth shut. Other weeks I annoy myself, and others, probably.

This week, everyone’s been all worked up about net neutrality.

Net Neutrality is the thing that basically defines the internet as a utility, meaning that the Internet Service Providers have to treat their service the same way as, say, a water company. They have pipes running all over the place, but they can’t throttle the flow based on what the flow is being used for (watching a movie vs. emailing) or where the flow came from (Netflix vs. a small blog started by someone who likes to yap about things on the internet.) It’s more complex than this, and also controversial, and you can tell because the wikipedia page about it is long an extensive and includes the sections of Arguments For and Arguments Against.

My first thought about the recent buzz is “Why are people so easily worked up about the fact that a policy giving power to Comcast and Verizon is potentially going to be enacted, and yet so difficult to move when it comes to issues such as fighting police violence and making sure people in Yemen are getting enough food?”

But then I have to remember that I, too, am now worked up about the fact that Comcast and Verizon could have more power, and that I too am difficult to move when it comes to making sure that people in Yemen have enough food, and when faced with the hypocrisy in myself I feel disappointed and ashamed.

Since I’ve already written almost all of this post already, and since wasting all that effort to preserve the really quite false image of my not being a hypocrite is kind of an exhausting decision to make, I’m going to post this anyway. But just know that I totally agree with you– I’m a goddamn hypocrite.

Sorry about that.

Where was I.

Oh yeah. My one friend is a Taxation is Theft Libertarian. But I like him. I’m familiar enough with him to understand that he simply sees the world as being better for all people if there is less government. And while I disagree strongly with him on a myriad of subjects, I can thoroughly respect his motives. He truly does want the best for everyone in all situations, and he sees libertarianism as the most efficient way to get there.

Normally I ignore his politics because I know he has good in mind, and also because he is so open and loud about sharing what he thinks that I’d need to quit my job to properly research and debate everything he says, and it’s just easier if I ignore it.

This week, he posted this link on facebook. The argument in the article is that Net Neutrality is just corporate welfare for companies like Netflix, forcing the poor poor ISPs to subsidize their business model. And this is what I replied. (It’s a little sarcastic, I know, but I’ve debated with this friend before, and he knows my style.)

So we’re cool with putting regulations into a market as long as those regulations don’t come from a government? Is that what you mean here?

Like, I’m not saying it’s great that Netflix doesn’t chip in extra for the extra strain on a utility company’s product during hours when it makes up a significant chunk of the bandwidth used. I can grant that, at least at surface value, that doesn’t seem totally fair. I’d need to do more research to come to an informed opinion.

However, it’s not going to stop with charging domains like netflix extra when their product is so in demand that they use extra bandwidth. ISPs want to charge individually for providing things we do in the internet right now, like VOIP and gaming. And there’s no way a big corporation like Comcast would push this kind of policy just to save the customer money.

They want to add regulation and throttle internet service unless consumers pay more.

If a water company throttled service based on where it was providing water and whether the source paid for the privilege of using the pipes, people would die. If an electrical company offered packages to power your lights but charged extra for the ability to power a fridge or do laundry, it would be cruel–especially on those whose incomes are low. While obviously the stakes are lower, the internet in this day and age is a utility. People use the internet to run businesses, work from home, get education, find jobs, learn their way around a new city efficiently, etc.

The ISPs are plenty powerful, what with their monopolies in rural areas and limited competition in others. It is simply not efficient or effective, apparently, for there to be many internet providers, like with water and electric. But that also means that there is little balance, there’s little competition. And since everyone is going to be paying for internet regardless of how shitty it is (because again, it is a utility in an information based and globalizing economy) the companies have no incentive to provide a better product. This is an instance where the free market fails.

My Libertarian Friend shared a lot of things against Net Neutrality.

This friend’s tendency on facebook is to share multiple articles about the same thing all at once, so there was a lot of anti net-neutrality on my facebook. In the interest of understanding the arguments a bit better before fighting against them, I actually clicked on a few.

One was written in 2014, before the current Net Neutrality law was in place, saying essentially that the government law was written by people in power so that they could stay in power, not to make anything better. His argument brought into question whether competition would be decreased by classifying ISPs as utilities, but also questioned if this regulation would empower the government to add spying software to our routers, and added the argument that government in general is not good– a popular libertarian argument, but not necessarily appropriate in this scope.

Another mentioned that “most plans aimed at freeing a market don’t include the FCC placing 400 pages of new regulations on that market.” (Never mind that the document linked is not a list of regulations, but rather provides evidence, sources, and arguments in addition to regulations and policies, and that the final draft of the current plan to dismantle net neutrality, also full of evidence, sources, and arguments, is over 300 pages long.)

It didn’t have anything major to say besides comparing internet companies (such as Netflix and Google) to the 18 wheelers who rightfully should have to pay more tolls at toll booths on the turnpike than small cars or trucks (who would be like small business pages, etc). Fair point, but there wasn’t much evidence to back them up. Mostly just theory.

This one says that there are already fast lanes for traffic from Google and Amazon and Facebook simply because of the nature of the technology. Admittedly, I didn’t know enough about it to disagree, so I moved on. It’s probably true, but I don’t think it breaks any opposing arguments. It simply increases the level of complexity of the situation.

This one brought up that local governments are responsible for the monopolized conditions in most areas. While I’m not fully convinced that local governments are the only source of monopolization, it’s nice to have an added facet to keep in mind when discussing this issue with others. The more sophisticated we keep our knowledge of a situation, the better prepared we are to advocate for the right solution. Even if it’s boring.

Eventually I stumbled across the actual proposal to roll back the current Net Neutrality laws myself. I didn’t know it was 300 pages, so I started reading it, thinking “it’s probably a short document, maybe there’s a chance in hell that I’ll be able to understand it.” HA.

It turned out to be a document full of argument and evidence. I was very surprised. It went on and on, and cited sources and everything. I didn’t look too deep because it was yesterday morning and I didn’t really feel like doing hard and in-depth research on my phone while I was still in bed. But it was at least logically consistent within itself, for the most part.

One of the more compelling arguments within the proposal to repeal was the assertion that net neutrality, or at least whatever version we have now, already existed because the market had demanded it in the first place. If an ISP chokes youtube, they are reducing the demand for the product that they offer as well– the ability to access things like Youtube.

It also noted that the FTC had shut down many activities on the part of ISPs before the law was in place. Most of the time that an ISP violated net neutrality in the first place, it did so to throttle competition. For example, they might throttle Netflix because it took away demand for their own, probably shittier, streaming service.

I kept reading, and grumbled to myself every once in a while. Frustrated, I had to concede that the current FCC’s document had a point. I didn’t want them to have a point, but they at least weren’t doing this without some semblance of an argument.


Why couldn’t they just be greedy pawns bumbling around without sense? That would be way easier to shut down. Instead, if their argument is consistent within itself, now we need to know if it is relevant to what we actually see in reality, and then compare it to other arguments to see which is more relevant to reality. And that’s WAYYYYY out of my research capacity.

A Rebuttal in Favor of Net Neutrality

I almost refused to write this section entirely. I’m a long winded person (you probably see that by now) and I know people don’t always love reading long winded things.

But I figured I should at least lay out the wikipedia level arguments. It’s only fair.

One good source is an article in the Journal of Law and Policy written by Nicholas Economides in 2008. In the conclusion of his article, the following is said, which actually does a pretty good job of laying out the argument in favor of Net Neutrality:

The success of the Internet thus far has been based on openness and non-discrimination, which until recently, was guaranteed by U.S. telecommunications regulation. Recently, the abolition of this regulation has led to proposals by broadband Internet access providers that would radically change pricing on the Internet. This article shows that these changes are likely to hurt consumers and diminish innovative activities in complementary sectors such as computer applications and content dissemination. These pricing proposals, if implemented, are likely to raise a variety of significant anti-competitive concerns, outlined in detail in the article.

Among these concerns is the possibility that access providers will degrade and/or restrict capacity in traditional Internet access to force applications and content providers to use their new “premium” service. The possibility exists that this degradation and restriction of capacity will happen in a coordinated way, in a cartel-like fashion. This article demonstrates that, even in the absence of such discrimination, due to the existence of network effects, charging a fee to application and content providers is likely to both hurt consumers and to reduce the benefit that the Internet brings to society as a whole.

In addition, there are a large number of vertical anti-competitive concerns created by the absence of a non-discrimination policy. Access networks, if left unrestrained by non-discrimination rules, have incentives to favor their own services, applications, and content and to kill competing services, such as independent VOIP providers, which provide alternative telephone services over the Internet. Additionally, the access networks have incentives to leverage their access monopoly or duopoly market power in many other complementary markets by offering “take it or leave it” contracts. Thus, the access providers will be able to determine who will be the primary provider of search engines, content, and other applications and services. This would be highly detrimental to the consumers and industries that rely on the Internet. (Economides, N. (2008))

I will concede to the Anti-Neutrality camp, much of the anti-competitive behavior of these ISPs (against VOIP, etc) would be able to be prosecuted under antitrust law.

But it is also worth noting that the legal system is a reactive system, not a proactive system. The onus would be on consumers and businesses to pay attention and bring up a lawsuit against an ISP for anti-competitive behavior. Additionally, the legal process is slow, and much injustice could be done before any legal decision was made.

And anyway, deregulation protects nobody from the fact that internet providers could simply decide to charge extra for services such as gaming or video streaming. It is not hard to envision a future in which my internet provider says “ok, your 2 year price lock contract is up, and this time we’re going with a more variable pricing model, and you’ll have to suck it because the only other internet provider in the area is doing the same shit. So now, you can keep your current price and be able to do everything except watch netflix and play video games, or you can pay an extra 10 dollars per month and be able to watch netflix and play video games.” They could conceivably do it again 2 years later.

It is also not hard to envision a future in which they simultaneously say, to content providers “Hey we know you like being able to reach a lot of people on the internet, but we just want to let you know that unless you pay us a lot more, it’s not really going to work for you so well, but again you can suck it because the other three internet providers are doing the exact same thing.”

It’s not really hard to envision this because that’s exactly what big businesses do. They swing their massive economic dicks around. We see stories where this happens all the time. Walmart does it to local small businesses. Amazon is doing it to all kinds of industries (the pharmacies were really freaked out last month because Amazon considered distributing prescription drugs.) Big pharmaceutical companies do it to the healthcare system ALL THE TIME, and why? Because they can. At least Walmart and Amazon have to take care of their customers, because at least on some level, Walmart and Amazon are optional vendors. We don’t have to shop on Amazon, we do it because it’s convenient. They’ve made it convenient.

Pharmaceutical companies, though, they know nobody can compete with them. Not really. I mean, there are often generic versions of a drug out there, and as time passes and patents expire, common people have more choice. But look what happened with the fucking EpiPen.  They jacked the price on that thing up from $100 to $600+ because they could. They got smacked for it, but they still did it. And now they have a $300 alternative version out. But even if someone was competing with them, who is going to say “nah I’m not paying that” when not paying has grave physical consequences?

The internet is not an EpiPen. The internet is not water. But the internet is part of almost every person’s life in this country now. It has permeated every aspect of our society, for better or for worse.

I know in my own life and the lives of those around me, there isn’t a single person who doesn’t have internet access. We could survive without it, sure. My rugged father in law would probably be quite content without it, and would perhaps even enjoy the extra level of “I’m living life my own way” it would provide him.

But his daughter pays $90ish per month so that she and her husband can keep their work-from-home jobs. (Their situation involves buying extra GB, as they live in a more rural area, where the ISPs have found they can put in data caps and charge overage fees. For comparison, me and my husband (who work from home fairly frequently) pay roughly 50 per month, with no data cap. We live an hour away from each other, but guess who’s closer to Pittsburgh?)

I don’t want to see a future in which consumers would have to pay more for Netflix so Netflix can pay the ISP for the fact that it exists, and then have to pay the ISP for the privilege of using Netflix.

I don’t want the way of the future to include companies who have taken on the task of distributing information and other internet wares suddenly deciding that they don’t like what a specific news source is saying, and throttling access to that source.

I don’t like the idea that an ISP could have a deal with Netflix to throttle other video traffic, thus blocking a potentially even better Next-Netflix from coming in. I also don’t want them to do step on baby ISPs who might do their job and do it better.

I don’t like the fact that I can already expect better internet service in the city than in rural areas. And I definitely don’t want that quality gap to widen.

There’s a lot to distrust about the government, to be sure. But there’s a lot more to distrust about the 4 major internet providers in this country who currently stand to have a lot more power to glean money from their customers.

As far as what to do in public policy…

Well I have no fucking idea. That’s where the whole “figure out which argument and view is most consistent with what we see in reality” thing comes into play. That’s so above my pay grade. Partially because I don’t get paid to do this.

But I can pretend to have an idea, based on the stuff I’ve read.

I do think it’s important to pay attention to the amount of regulations we add in. I said wayyyy earlier that the Democrat answer is often to shove regulations in where they aren’t necessary yet. And, well, in the FCC document dismantling prior law, one of the arguments made is the following, regarding comments made by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:

The record confirms that concern about “regulatory creep”—whereby a regulator slowly increases its reach and the scope of its regulations—has exacerbated the regulatory uncertainty created by the Title II Order. Even at the time of adoption, the Commission itself did not seem to know how the Title II Order would be interpreted. As then-Chairman Wheeler stated in February 2015, “we don’t really know. No blocking, no throttling, no fast lanes. Those can be bright-line rules because we know about those issues. But we don’t know where things go next.”370 With future regulations open to such uncertainties, Title II regulation adds a risk premium on each investment decision, which reduces the expected profitability of potential investments and deters investment. For example, the Title II Order did not forbear from ex post enforcement actions related to subscriber charges, raising concerns that ex post price regulation was very much a possibility. Further, providers have asserted that although the Commission forbore from the full weight of Title II in the Title II Order, they were less willing to invest due to concerns that the Commission could reverse course in the future and impose a variety of costly regulations on the broadband industry—such as rate regulation and unbundling/open access requirements—placing any present investments in broadband infrastructure at risk. (FCC, 2017)

I’m pretty sure the Real People translation of that would be “This guy said companies might have more rules to follow in the future, and so then the companies freaked out and stopped investing in themselves because they were afraid that any investments would be regulated, and the risk was too high.”

To my mind, that’s a pretty dumb reason to stop investing, unless they know that all the places they want to invest are suspiciously prone to being investigated for some violation of justice or antitrust law? Or maybe they know they have essentially monopolized, and can continue to make money without investing in themselves, noted in this article:

“While investment in broadband infrastructure has certainly dwindled in recent years, the impact that net neutrality regulation has had is very much open to debate,” says Dan Hays, global tech, media, and telecom lead at PwC’s Strategy& group. “In fact, it’s quite plausible that growth in market penetration of broadband services, coupled with acceleration of industry consolidation over the past few years, have more to do with reduced spending, despite the pleas of network operators,” Hays says. The subtext here is that investors in telecom companies, as a rule, detest massive new capital expenditure spending on network infrastructure. Combining with other networks is one way to avoid doing so. (Fast Company, 2017)

If a company can’t be innovative without being a dick to people, then they shouldn’t be given the ability to be innovative. And if regulations that keep them from being a dick to people also keep them from innovating, then again, tough shit. Don’t be a dick, companies.

But still, there is a small point there. If a company has to constantly second guess itself on whether it can do a thing, chances are higher that fewer things will get done, for better or for worse.

I think it’s reasonable to approach this conundrum with, as Current FCC Chairman Pai describes it, a light hand. But I want that light hand to also be a right hand. (Heh. Rhyme. Ish.)

This is the Internet we’re talking about, not a new postal system. We can’t expect all possible ills that could befall an open internet to be covered by the regulations put into place before this technology was even fully developed. Hell, for all we know, As Wheeler said when he was quoted in the FCC Document, our current regulations may not be enough for whatever the future holds (though that hypothesis is, also, uncertain). The internet is powerful, and it is also a baby technology. There are a lot of ways to use it and abuse it that we simply haven’t come across yet.

While in the interview with Mark Sullivan, Wheeler says

“So let’s go back to 2005 when Comcast announced that it wasn’t going to allow peer-to-peer video over its network because it interfered with some of the services they wanted to make profits off of. The FCC, which by the way was a Republican FCC at that point, said “No” and sanctioned them. Comcast took [the FCC] to court and the court said ‘Oh no, you can’t take that action against Comcast unless you make Comcast a common carrier.’

That, of course, is at the root of the whole Title II issue. And it had been going on for a dozen years by the time it landed on my desk.” (Fast Company, 2017)

And in this piece created by Timothy Lee at Vox, it is noted that

“For many network neutrality supporters, the big problem with the Republican bill is that it removes the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to tweak the rules in changing circumstances. Many network neutrality advocates worry that without this rulemaking power, it will be too easy for broadband providers to find and exploit loopholes in the network neutrality rules. They also warn that stripping the FCC of rulemaking authority will also make it more difficult for the agency to update the rules to adjust to changing circumstances in the future.” (Vox, 2017)

I don’t trust Comcast. I don’t trust Verizon. I don’t trust Time Warner Cable. I’ve been given shitty options by them and watched them give shitty options to my family and friends. I want someone to have the power and infrastructure in place to fight them when they step out of line.

We can acknowledge that current laws may not be 100% good without saying that they must, then, be 100% bad. So if we’re going to roll back Net Neutrality, lets take a lot longer to think through it, and maybe let’s have more research into the economic impacts of such a policy. And we should definitely not keep ourselves from modifying the policy in the future. The fuck kind of idea is that. “Oh sure, and while we’re at it let’s make sure we never update any traffic laws.” Please.

Ultimately, I’m less concerned about the fact that my internet bill could go up 10 dollars or that I’d have to interact with Verizon more frequently and aggressively, and more concerned about the potential for reduced internet access for the poor. Double-ultimately, I have to keep my perspective– we all have to keep our perspective. We can’t allow doomsday political memes to get into our heads, not on a minor issue like this.

This debate gets people fired up, but it’s not like we’re fighting about healthcare or human rights. And regardless of which side you’re on here, things will most likely be ok in the end.