As I noted recently, net neutrality is back in the spotlight, so I thought it would be useful – and maybe entertaining – to look at an anti-net neutrality article for the insights it gives us about how the other side views things. It's called "Pick Up On One and Let The Other One Ride", and appears in the Huffington Post. Here's how it frames the discussion:
One direction follows the lead of activists who worry that without "net neutrality," a non-competitive broadband world will lead the major broadband infrastructure companies to stifle the flow of Internet content and extract a pound of digital flesh from the content they do allow. It sounds romantic and epic — the people standing up against the great forces that would stifle their voices, Liberty on the Barricades. Except there's no evidence that's going on.
Note how, once more, this frames net neutrality in terms of content, when it actually about more general Internet-based services that may have nothing to do with media of any kind. This shows the conceptual bias of those against net neutrality: what they are fighting for is the ability to prioritise certain content over the rest. As I've pointed out before, what this really means is turning the Internet into a kind of super-TV system.
The comment "there's no evidence that's going on" again misses the point. It may well be true that no one is charging different rates for different content, but that overlooks the very clear infractions against net neutrality that most certainly are taking place. These typically involving penalising entire classes – things like VoIP or P2P. The tunnel vision of only considering content means that this far more egregious loss of net neutrality is missed (or maybe just glossed over.)
But this incorrect emphasis is nothing compared to what we find in the contrasting option:
The other direction is to adopt a new and better priority: to extend the high-speed net to all. That begins by acknowledging that our telecom sector has done everything we've asked of it. It's created jobs and growth in an otherwise listless economic environment by sinking tens of billions of their own dollars in to improving the ability of citizens to gather, communicate, and even access their basic needs such as health care and education. The broadband infrastructure suppliers are doing far more to facilitate diverse content than to thwart it.
If they ever change tack and stifle their competitors unfairly one day, we can readily use the anti-trust laws to whack 'em.
Somehow, net neutrality has become the antipodes of rolling out high-speed connectivity, when the two are entirely decoupled: you can have neither, one, or both. We find out why that opposition is set up, in the next sentence: "acknowledging that our telecom sector has done everything we've asked of it." This is a wonderful inversion of the facts. Telecoms companies have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century by a new generation of Internet companies and their users. If the telecom companies had their way, we would still be using dial-up modems to connect to bulletin boards.
Similarly, it's the new Internet companies – or the ones in older industries that have grasped that the Internet means reinventing themselves in its image – that have generated the millions of jobs around the world as the amazing possibilities of this digital network have been explored and rolled out to people.
The only reason telecom companies have been sinking money into networks is so that they can meet the huge and growing demand for IP connectivity that is turning their voice-based view of the world upside-down. Had they not made those investments, others would have, in order to hitch a ride on the extraordinarily steep growth of the IP world – and to enjoy the concomitant profits. The telecom sector did not make this happen, but merely joined in, usually later than everyone else.
Even the mention above of using anti-trust laws betrays the old-world perspective, where things moved slowly enough that government action after the event might have made sense. But as the Microsoft anti-trust case made clear, now things are moving so quickly that by the time a court reaches its judgement, the damage has been done, and the remedies are probably irrelevant. That's why we need laws enshrining net neutrality before the problems arise.
Of course, the article uses a by-now familiar argument against net neutrality:
"Neutrality" requires everything that travels the Net, no matter how important or valuable, to travel at the same speed and under the same terms — be it my cardiac monitor's signal to a local hospital or a video of a cat playing the xylophone. It's a death sentence for competition and innovation.
It's actually a pre-condition for competition and innovation, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee pointed out in an earlier intervention in the net neutrality debate. As he emphasised, he didn't need to ask permission when he invented the Web, but absent true net neutrality, he might have, since ISPs would be able to block innovative new services in favour of incumbents.
And as for prioritising your cardiac monitor's signal over xylophonist cat videos, that's still possible; but it must be under the control of the user, not the supplier. That way, there can be no blanket discrimination against services in general, just preferential allocation of personal bandwidth to particular services, as chosen by individual end-users.
What this Huffington Post piece shows once again is that the anti-net neutrality brigade are essentially those in favour of leaving power in the hands of the incumbents – telecom companies, media houses etc. - and ensuring that the Internet upstarts are made dependent upon them. It's yet another reason why we must bring in legislation that enshrines net neutrality: it is the only way to ensure that the Internet and its services will continue to thrive and expand as they have done over the last decade and a half. Provided that happens, the telecom companies should be only too happy to invest their billions to meet this huge demand. And if they don't, there will be plenty of newcomers who will.
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