Net Neutrality and the Contrarian Backlash

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama gave a speech laying out strong support for “net neutrality”. Obama called on the FCC to change classification of broadband internet providers to “common carrier” class, meaning that they would be prohibited from privileging — or blocking — particular sorts of traffic passing through their systems.

The backlash was quick in coming, with industry leaders denouncing the move the same day. Of course, if you have plans to monetize access to the users attached to your systems, becoming a common carrier is exactly what you do not want. The industry response was at least cogent, though the evil factor was strong in it. Much was made of government regulation supposedly curtailing innovation in service, though one can look back on the phone industry as a place where innovation continued even though such regulations were simply a part of business. What, exactly, might be the innovation that net neutrality would hinder? The press releases were high on fear factor and strangely reticent to talk specifics, which is a good thing for PR when specifics are not available. A stronger demotivator for innovation that the industry does not want to discuss is near-monopoly status for an ISP in localities and industry-proposed legislation that would prohibit municipalities from establishing their own broadband services. If multiple ISPs commonly served the same community, that would be a far greater spur to innovation than simply deferring net neutrality can ever hope to be.

But beyond simple greed and evil, there was another wave of anti-net neutrality backlash in the pipeline. Senator Ted Cruz went to Twitter with a supposed witticism about net neutrality, reproduced here in its entirety:

“Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.

As many others have noted, this indicates that Ted Cruz doesn’t understand at least one of several concepts mentioned in his tweet.

And now, conservative/libertarian group “FreedomWorks” have released a video explaining net neutrality and why government shouldn’t regulate braodband providers (see it embedded here).

I’ll transcript the video.

[Title: Clearing up net neutrality]

Hi, I’m Iris Somberg, communications director here at FreedomWorks.

There’s been a lot of confusion around the net neutrality debate, with the president calling for more strict regulations on internet providers. Let’s see if we can clear a few things up.

Supporters of the plan call it a “free and open internet”, but in reality it is anything but.

What net neutrality does is to force providers to treat all web content equally: the same speeds, the same prices, the same access. But all web content isn’t equal. Netflix is not the same as a high school blog, and YouTube certainly isn’t the same as FaceBook. They serve very different purposes, and they have very different needs. By dictating that all these sites be treated the same, net neutrality makes small companies that don’t take up much bandwidth at all pay more so that big companies can pay less. That’s not the kind of equality the internet needs. Net neutrality is not a level playing field. It’s an anti-competitive policy that protects the internet’s biggest companies at the expense of everyone else.

[Title: Clearing up net neutrality]

Ms. Somberg, besides looking like one of Dracula’s dates a couple of days after in the video (hint: shift the white balance to a higher K than the light source used to illuminate the person in your video, not vice versa), certainly makes a run at “most misinformed commentary possible about net neutrality”. She does this by completely inverting the context. What is being discussed is not how companies, large and small, manage to settle up with the companies who put their content on the internet. (It’s an important discussion, but it isn’t net neutrality.) Net neutrality is about the relationship between end users and their internet service providers (ISPs). Specifically, it means an end to ISPs treating data from different sources in different ways. It means that the packets a user downloads from either Netflix or a “high school blog” come to them without their ISP deciding that one or the other should be made slower or faster than the other. Ms. Somberg may not know this, but Netflix does pay more to put their content online than a “high school blog” does and still will even if net neutrality is adopted; that isn’t on-topic for net neutrality, but it is another way that she is simply wrong. Certain anti-net neutrality advocates claim that “blocking” sites hasn’t happened and net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem. (In general, these people often are the same ones arguing for more “voter ID” laws and other ways of reducing mostly non-existent voter fraud.) But there is a clear, large-scale case of packet traffic modification, where Comcast reduced bandwidth available for Netflix packets to make it across their networks to Comcast subscribers who also wanted to watch Netflix. The goal they were after was to force Netflix to pay Comcast for the privilege of full bandwidth for Netflix content going to Comcast subscribers. Net neutrality means that Comcast and other ISPs don’t get to use their users as hostages to corporate negotiations.

And that last piece of data received full treatment in a cartoon at The Oatmeal, showing that a web cartoonist is way, way out in front of Ms. Somberg so far as delivering good data on a topic.

There are issues about the internet to be handled that are outside the scope of net neutrality. But net neutrality is a first step toward securing a free internet, one where you don’t have to fear that your ISP will slow down or cut off your favorite vendors, information sources, or even critical government services. It means that you don’t have to fear that your ISP will cut sweet deals with some services and make it so that if you want quick communications, you have to go with the people they make money from. This doesn’t mean that big companies can’t get a leg up by contracting for higher source bandwidth; they already do that and will continue to do so even under net neutrality. It does mean, though, that whatever the source’s bandwidth happens to be, your ISP doesn’t artificially change it to look slower to you.

The only word Ms. Somberg got right in her list of price, speed, and access would be access, but not, as we’ve just established, in the context she claimed. Net neutrality doesn’t mean that ISPs have to all have the same price and speed for a user account. Nobody is proposing that ISPs have to standardize on a “one size fits all” internet access agreement. Users will still have whatever selection is available for choices on price and speed. (This is often pretty restricted because localities have allowed ISPs to establish effective monopolies. I myself was looking for an alternative for my home service when a technical issue went unresolved for weeks, and found that I really didn’t have a choice. That certainly wasn’t a net neutrality issue, either.) What net neutrality does about access is take that variable out of the hands of the ISP, and it means that no matter what the ISP, the user is able to get the benefit of the entire internet, not just the bits his ISP prefers that he use.

It also means that if you want to find out what the issues are, and aren’t, you need to read or watch someone outside of the contrarian backlash who must be against something that the president is for, even if they don’t have clue one about what the topic is. Ms. Somberg doesn’t have a clue. Ted Cruz doesn’t have a clue. What they have is an abundance of ignorance and hubris.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

One thought on “Net Neutrality and the Contrarian Backlash

  • 2014/11/15 at 12:47 am

    It appears that someone named Logan Albright is the FreedomWorks analyst whose talking points Iris Somberg blithered into viral video infamy (see here). Albright makes all the errors I already identified above, but notches up the hubris to another level with this gem:

    But the president, like most supporters of Net Neutrality, fails to understand how the internet actually works.

    Logan, you might want to get past the “intertubes” portion of the Internet Dunning-Kruger curve yourself before trying to dish insults on that score. Getting pretty much everything bass-ackward is quite a feat.

    I’ve set up personal sites that used little bandwidth and have been responsible for running popular sites that got loads more traffic (though nothing on the scale of Netflix). Nothing in net neutrality threatens the ability to provision popular sites with the source bandwidth they need, nor does it imply that lower-bandwidth sites will somehow subsidize source bandwidth for bigger, more popular sites, nor does it prevent anyone setting up a popular site from contracting for needed source bandwidth. What net neutrality does is make sure that ISPs downstream of those more-or-less popular sites aren’t treated differently because of, well, whatever. The end users who want access to the popular sites would, under net neutrality, be guaranteed that the end user’s ISP doesn’t throttle back on the bandwidth for them, just because that ISP would like to earn some extra bucks from the people running those sites. And it makes sure that less popular sites can still be accessed by the users who would like to, despite being less popular and especially despite not having extra bucks to throw at every major ISP who might carry their packets to an end user. The popularity in question here should be shaped by those end users, and not artificially manipulated by the ISPs who serve them. The end users *are* the free market of the internet; why does Logan want to stifle the free market?

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