Eliminate net neutrality to ensure success
The Federal Communications Commissions’ 3-2 vote approving “net neutrality”—in other words, a government takeover of the Internet—embodies everything that’s wrong with Washington, D.C.
The 332-page plan, which was passed in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s favorite way— before anyone had a chance to read it—paves the way for an Internet that is treated as a public utility. This means that the Internet and its service providers are treated the same way as electricity, water and other resources are—as utilities designed for a public purpose, meaning that Internet service providers must treat all Internet content the same without discrimination or favoritism. While this is a seemingly noble goal, the FCC’s plan to outlaw Internet service provider “fast lanes” has dire implications for the Internet as we know it, because a hands-off approach has made the Internet what it is today.
The net neutrality debate centers on a dispute between Netflix and Comcast. Netflix, which gobbles up a third of peak North American Internet traffic, according to cnet.com, had claimed that Comcast intentionally stifled speeds, affecting millions of Netflix users in the process, in order to force Netflix into paying for direct interconnection with the ISP. This was against Netflix’s wishes of gaining direct access without charge.
Politicians and pundits like John Oliver quickly demonized Comcast and charged ISPs with perverting the Internet through extortionist tactics that would destroy the open web. Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, as well as President Obama and companies like Netflix, called for net neutrality regulations to protect free speech and the growth of small business.
But the FCC’s regulations have been prompted by baseless allegations against ISPs. They’ve been rooted not in facts but rather in paranoia and will do nothing to preserve the Internet’s free-market values the way that net neutrality proponents claim they will. ISPs have not hindered and do not hinder speeds and connectivity for their own cynical, profit-seeking purposes. In reality, the record leading up to the FCC vote shows that there have been “only five instances in the history of the Internet where ISPs may have thwarted content providers’ access to end-users,” according to Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of the International Center for Law and Economics.
In the Netflix-Comcast case, it’s clear that the reasons for Netflix’s congestion don’t call for sweeping net neutrality regulations. First, the premonitions of Internet catastrophe because of the deal struck by Netflix and Comcast are widely exaggerated. Indeed, direct-interconnection deals made between ISPs and high-traffic content providers are pretty commonplace within the market. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Akamai and many other high-traffic content providers have all struck similar deals with multiple ISPs including Verizon, CenturyLink, AT&T, Comcast and many other companies.
But more importantly, according to Internet industry analyst Larry Downes, Netflix’s slowdown in service prior to the agreement on the deal was not due to Comcast. Prior to directly interconnecting with Comcast, Netflix operated with Cogent, a third-party transit provider that was the de facto middleman between Netflix and Comcast.
Cogent, a self-proclaimed backer of net neutrality, was prioritizing certain clients over others, preferring retail customers to wholesale customers like Netflix. Later on, Cogent would admit that they slowed down Netflix’s traffic during the time when the Netflix-Comcast dispute was at its apex.
Dan Rayburn, analyst of streaming media technology and content, writes that Cogent “prioritized data based on user type, ‘putting its retail customers in one group and wholesale in another’” for a variety of technical reasons. But once Netflix established an interconnection with Comcast, the problems went away.
Since 1999, net neutrality advocates have claimed that the growth of the Internet would be stifled at the hands of nefarious ISPs, but their apocalyptic visions haven’t actually materialized.
On the contrary, the Internet has dramatically expanded since then. According to Downes, 1999 startups like Google dominate the Internet today, while ISPs have invested over a trillion dollars in new infrastructure, showing that the Internet experience has uniformly improved and grown since 1999, with ISPs playing an important part. The Internet is also the home of millions of blogs, media outlets and opinion-based websites where free speech flourishes every second of every day. And all the while, ISPs have existed without negatively touching our lives online.
This should, in theory, quell the fears of today’s advocates who think that their apprehension somehow differs from the fears of the last millennium’s net neutrality proponents. But the regulations they helped to pass, under the catchy slogan “net neutrality—created by Columbia Law professor Tim Wu—trumps facts and reason, and it could have serious implications on the future of the Net.
The main issue with classifying the Internet as a public utility is that classifying other sectors of our economy as public utilities in the past hasn’t worked. For instance, Downes cites the corruption and inefficiency run amok in electricity services. He points to the example of Michael Peevey, California’s top regulator of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., who engaged in backroom deals with the electric company while looking the other way at maintenance issues that would lead to a fatal explosion in San Bruno. The Internet is just too important to risk having such incompetence and inefficiency. Even worse, net neutrality threatens future innovation. Mark Cuban, a businessman who built his success online by creating and selling Broadcast.com for $5.6 billion to Yahoo, voiced his concerns:
“There will be many applications that we can’t foresee today. [And] we need those applications to not just have priority, but guaranteed quality of service. I want certain medical apps that need the Internet to be able to get the bandwidth they need. There will be apps that doctors will carry on 5G networks that allow them to get live video from accident scenes and provide guidance. There will be machine vision apps that [use] huge amounts of bandwidth. I want them to have fast lanes.”
Today’s technology may seem unsurpassable, but we must remember that an unregulated Internet let us develop the Internet we have now.
And with the same commitment to liberty and the right to be left alone from government intrusion online, the sky is indeed the limit for what the Internet can and will be.
So before we rush to conclusions and deem net neutrality a necessity, we should remember that a government that couldn’t get a $2 billion website running for Obamacare is now in charge of overseeing and regulating the entire Internet. Instead of creating another corrupt bureaucratic mess that threatens to suppress the vast potential of the Internet, we should reject net neutrality and not try to fix what isn’t broken.
And no, I’m not bought and paid for by Comcast. Don’t even ask.