As someone who earns a living in part based on a digital marketplace that links creators and consumers of content, including apps, videos, music, books, and more, I and millions of other in tech have a hard time being neutral on net neutrality. That makes President Obama’s video and statement on the subject worthy of our attention.
Much of Obama’s net neutrality endorsement is inarguable in a way Whitney Houston demonstrated with her lyric, “I believe the children are our future/Teach them well and let them lead the way.” He gets more specific on four points, though, and I see a host of negative consequences they would produce. I suspect that after you consider them and your own motivations and concerns, you’ll find yourself feeling less neutral than you might have thought.
After all, on the future of the internet, there is no neutral position. No matter how it is regulated (or not), some will benefit more than others.
No blocking. “If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP (“Internet Service Provider”) should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.” It isn’t neutral because of how easily regulators could over-reach. For example, given how few users ever see anything beyond page one of a search result, if Google fulfills a search request so that a result appears on page three, could that be construed as “blocking?” Companies that both rely on and compete with Google, such as Yelp, already have complained about this. “No blocking” is well-intentioned but ripe for misuse.
No throttling. “Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.” It isn’t neutral because content owners would benefit in the near term, though in the long run, ISP rationing would seem inevitable. Given that every broadband service offers finite capacity, ISPs need a healthy profit motive to increase it. If, as #4 below suggests, the government impinges on their ability to manage bandwidth scarcity with pricing, ISPs will be deprived of the resources they need to make these investments. The result could be throttling for everyone.
Increased transparency. “The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.” It isn’t neutral because of the same reasons as #2. This provision simply acknowledges that speed and capacity depends on several parts of the plumbing that support the internet.
No paid prioritization. “Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.” It isn’t neutral because once again, content owners would win. Proponents need to explain why internet service demands special treatment compared to other things we pay to have delivered. They liken ISPs to utilities, but companies such as FedEx offer a better analogy. A new sofa weighs more and therefore requires more energy to move than a paperback book. For that reason, consumers are well accustomed to paying more to ship larger items or to ensure they arrive more quickly. Think of a streaming movie, which requires more broadband bandwidth, as being a sofa in this analogy. Shouldn’t it be okay to require providers or users who require more bandwidth to pay more, as well?
The internet has flourished in large part because of the absence of government intrusion. Pricing allows for more efficient allocation of resources than top-down regulation. If we don’t like our service or content providers, we can switch. Choices keep competitors honest and provide them a natural incentive to find ways to deliver better services, lower prices, or both.
The best thing Obama could do, therefore, is foster an environment that encourages the creation of more bandwidth and lower prices.
His anything-but-neutral vision of net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem and would accomplish neither.