There seems to be a lot of confusion about net neutrality. Of course, there’s also a lot of corporate propaganda about net neutrality, too, so that is not terribly surprising. I’m going to take up a couple of criticisms I’ve seen recently.
“Net neutrality is [pejorative].”
This is the sort of thing one gets when the opposition material to net neutrality is accepted and the person has no notion that a response is possible.
Let’s describe net neutrality for what it does and means as simply as possible. Internet service providers (ISPs) contract with customers to deliver content from the internet. Net neutrality asserts that ISPs should put their end customers’ needs first, getting them the content they request, and not messing around with service such that some content is more available than other content. I’ve seen an objection even to this, that ISPs can balance network traffic such that some customers can’t hog all the available bandwidth, so why should we be concerned about ISPs extending that to favor or disfavor third party content? It seems obvious to me that dealing with the need to equitably service all your customers is a different matter than holding all your customers hostage in order to obtain a separate revenue stream from third party content providers, but apparently this is not a distinction that is generally appreciated.
“The government should stay out of it; they never help anything.”
This one is ironic in that the US government was heavily involved in the issue of establishing effective computer networking and the development of the protocols that underlie the operation of the internet as we know it, which is a matter of history. The government has acted from time to time when corporate interests obviously harmed the public, such as in breaking up monopolies, regulating drugs so that poisons didn’t get sold as medicine, and reducing the most obvious forms of pollution. ISPs have shown that they can and will seek to monetize their relationship with paying customers by seeking additional payments from content providers, as in the 2014 case of Netflix bowing to demands from Comcast to pay Comcast in order to have Netflix traffic delivered effectively to Comcast customers. If you were a Comcast customer with a Netflix subscription then, it wasn’t simply a matter of calling Comcast and asking tech support to fix the slow Netflix feed; the decision to slow it down was monetary, not technical. Is it right that your ISP should decide that they will or will not allow you to load content you’ve bought from a particular content provider? And if you answer, no, that isn’t right, who do you suppose can possibly tell your ISP that they not just should not, but cannot do that? Most people in the USA do not have an effective choice for getting broadband internet; in most communities there is only one ISP serving faster broadband. If you decide you don’t like their service, you don’t really have an alternative of equal value. Suing your ISP has the usual problems with expense and the fact that, in general, the ISP can afford more and better lawyers than you are likely to get, plus the fact that they are more likely to simply terminate your service than to give you what you paid for. I’ve seen no indication that there is an effective alternative to government involvement, nor that government involvement would have the downsides that the propaganda asserts.
The FCC is accepting comments on net neutrality, though it doesn’t seem they really want them. Getting to the right place on their site involves searching for the right topic code (“17-108”) and knowing that to leave a comment you have to press the “Express” link. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has helpfully bought a domain gofccyourself.com, that uses URL forwarding to get you directly to the page where you have to press “Express” to file your comment. Note that they require your name, address, and email to leave a comment, and say that the rules mean that all that information will be publicly available on their site thereafter. Yeah, that’s the sort of government I’m not fond of, that abdicates its responsibility and puts roadblocks in the way of public commentary. We need to hold them to do the job we the people want, and we apparently have to tell them what that is. Not, of course, that the ascendant majority at the FCC will listen, but I still think making clear that they are going down the wrong path is important.