Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Re-Framing the Net Neutrality Debate...

Net Neutrality is the single most important issue affecting people's day-to-day lives that no one has ever heard of or understands. It is also a debate that is grossly misframed by the media.

Let's clear a few things up...

Net Neutrality is how the internet already is and has been since its creation. The internet is "neutral" because, when you're surfing, all websites are considered equal - meaning that you pay a monthly subscription fee to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) in order to surf the entire Web; you do not have to pay different fees in order to access different websites. Everything is accessible.

The political debate over Net Neutrality consists of one side - the ISPs and giant telecoms - who want to get rid of Net Neutrality so that they can charge fees for accessing different types of sites, or block them altogether. For example, ISPs like Cablevision or Verizon would charge a fee anytime people wanted to visit a website with video, which uses more bandwidth than plain text, while others like Comcast would totally block entire types of software, like Bittorrent, because of similar bandwidth concerns (which they have already tried to do in the past). These companies argue that it's their network, - they spent billions to actually build the wires and cables making up the infrastructure, so they own it and can manage it as they please, - so why not?

On the other side of the debate are small website owners who want to keep the internet neutral and a level playing field. They don't want to have to choose between paying a large fee in order to make their site accessible or else making their site text-only. That would put small business owners and new startup companies at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. The F.C.C. is actually on the pro- Net Neutrality side, arguing that the neutral internet has been such a great incubator for business startups and innovation that it should remain so.

The political issue is about whether or not the government should actually guarantee that the internet remain neutral through legislation.

First of all, despite what you might hear, this isn't a battle between The People versus The Man. It's between one group of companies versus another group of companies (giant telecoms vs. websites).

Second, it also isn't a battle between big-government regulators versus free-market capitalists. It's entirely a free-market capitalist question, and it's focused exclusively on the supply-side of the equation. What's at issue is simply which industry to favor over another (and a "no decision" to regulate is still a decision, favoring one industry over another). Either the government regulates the telecoms and creates a deregulated environment for startup websites, or the government deregulates the telecoms and creates a regulated environment for websites. It's a Catch-22. Regulations will result from either policy course.

Third, and as a result, it makes no sense for the issue to split along party lines of Republican versus Democrats. Any cable news pundits who try to frame it as such have no clue what the issue is actually about. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of politicians have no understanding whatsoever about the technical issues involved, and are simply taking their cues from the lobbyists of the giant telecoms (small website operators don't have the same organized lobbying clout). Take it from me as someone who's been researching the nuances of Net Neutrality for years - if politicians actually understood the issue, many Republicans would be all about creating a DEREGULATED environment for new website startups to innovate and flourish.

So here we are with the F.C.C. about to release its newest set of rules trying to protect Net Neutrality. They're on the right side of the debate, however, their suggested guidelines are seriously flawed. First of all, they want to guarantee neutrality on wired internet connections, but expressly want to let ISPs skirt around Net Neutrality through wireless connections. They need to get a little more consistent. Second, it's questionable whether their guidelines even strive for neutrality at all. They've included two gigantic loopholes that can easily be exploited: 1) they ban any "unreasonable discrimination" of websites, but "unreasonable" can be defined lots of different ways; 2) the rules do not explicitly forbid "paid prioritization," which would allow a company to pay for faster transmission of data. Isn't that what this entire debate is really about?

It seems to me that the F.C.C.'s latest Net Neutrality rules are just like others they've attempted in the past - hollow and merely symbolic. They're trying to establish which is the right side in the debate, but not actually generating a policy that will have much meaningful effect in reaching the larger objective.


At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I do not disagree with your assessment, I think it is foolish to downplay the "us" part of the "us vs the man" analogy.

This blog would not exist, nor would I be able to read it or post to it, were the net regulated in favor of the larger corporations.

Besides being an incubator for small business, the net has revolutionized communication and journalism. Without an open system this all goes away. I would not pay an extra fee to read a blog, although I suppose someone out there would - even so the demographic changes radically.

In that change, radical voice and anonymous content creation is also squashed.

tldr, yes, NN supports smaller companies, but that model favors open communication and that is better than the alternative.

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So only companies have websites, do they, Rob?

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

In reply to Anonymous' comment, the reason why it makes better sense to frame the issue as between one group of companies versus a different group of companies is because, when viewing the issue in political terms (the context of the FCC rules), the leading actors discussed in the debate are the Googles and Skypes of the world versus the Comcasts and Verizons.

There is not much of a grassroots uprising with any real political clout to speak of, at least as of yet, which would justify the current politics of Net Neutrality as being framed as "The People vs. The Man". The consequences, absolutely, you're right, will cascade that way, but right now the politics of influence are not shaped in that manner.

For better or worse.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

And, of course, not only companies have websites. As I've written many times before, I, personally, support Net Neutrality because individuals and independent website operators ought to be able to function on a level playing field with the big-wigs.

Check out:

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I've never understood why America tries to stand on both sides of the fence at the same time. ISPs and telecoms are highly regulated and subsidized -- they aren't in a free market. If you want to go the free-market route, you need to highly deregulate these industries to allow for more competition so that the consumer isn't on the losing side.


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