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Net Neutrality: For and Against

The Against Side

Net Neutrality can, at times, sound like a good thing. It’s pitched as keeping the Internet fair, even, free (as in unrestrained) so that the big boys can’t come in and push aside the little guys. The reason this has gained more traction among users is the fact that the Internet is no longer a novelty. Though I admit I have no official statistics for this I will wager that the majority of Internet users don’t remember a time when there wasn’t an Internet. To them it’s like a refrigerator. It’s always running, always there, and nothing at all special. They only notice it when the ice cream melts.

Don't Unplug Me! Net Neutrality

Today a few of the big companies are pushing for government regulations on the Internet known as Net Neutrality. One should ask why? Why are these big companies asking the government to come in and control them? Probably for the same reason the Insurance companies were in favor of Obamacare. Because even though it sounds like they will be stifled and regulated they are hedging their bets that it puts them in a position to compete (unfairly) in the marketplace.

Take the fight between Netflix and Comcast. Netflix is an extremely heavy user of the Internet. “Streaming services now account for over 70% of peak traffic in North America, Netflix dominates with 37%” (Protalinski, 2015) That’s a huge number for a single company. Because of their heavy use Comcast has asked Netflix to pay more money since they use more. Think of it like an amusement part that has a family rate and your family has 16 members. That family rate works out really well for the park when the family size is small, but at a certain point it no longer makes sense to them. So, they change their prices and make it a family rate up to 5 family members. The Netflix family has gotten to big and Comcast wants to make them pay. To me, that seems reasonable. You use more, you pay more.

Though I certainly like my Internet and like to be connected as much as possible I also understand it’s a service I pay for. The infrastructure is owned by the company I pay. The connection from my computer, to my modem, to my house, to the company, to the Internet of things, isn’t something I’m owed or own, it’s something I rent.

Net Neutrality tells the companies that spent billions on the Internet that they can’t do what they want to with their property. This is done so that certain companies have a better chance in the market place. When they do this through innovation, cost cutting, and hard work, that’s terrific. When it’s done through government intervention it’s called crony capitalism. Not so terrific.

If you like your Internet service provider, you can keep your Internet service provider.

The For Side

It turns out the information super highway is a great deal like the real highway.  If roads were all private the companies that owned them could charge what they wanted and restrict some traffic and not others. When you left your house you might drive over the roadways of several different companies and have to pay each of them to cross. That’s how the Internet works for companies like Netflix. Net Neutrality is quite a bit like government managed roadways.

Content companies building businesses and services online recognized this speed advantage, and they began working with companies that specialized in building servers all over the Internet that would store or cache popular information closer to where customers would access it. Companies like Akamai and Limelight pioneered what’s become known as the content delivery network or CDN business. These companies specialized in building these networks, which if you think of the highway analogy I used before acted as a network of warehouses that were used to store the content closer to end users.

But in order to deliver the goods to end users, these companies still needed access to the roads or transit networks that would carry the packets to their destination. And in order to deliver their packets of content to end users, they would have to pay the owners of those networks — that is, broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

In turn, companies, like Netflix, which have large amounts of content to distribute and want to ensure better quality of service for their consumers, contracted with CDNs, like Akamai, to deliver that content more efficiently. In those days, the cost of paying for transit over long distances was also quite expensive, which also factored into the business calculus of paying a CDN to act as a middleman and store content closer to consumers.

Back and forth across the roads of the Internet what a pain! Unlike our highway system there was no getting in your car in LA and driving to New York unfettered. A packet of data was forced to pay a toll to each company. Net Neutrality would insure that each packet, like the cars and trucks on our roadways, make it without hindrance.

Two Questions to Ask

Question one for me is: does the Internet mean the same thing as the roads do? When I think of the amount of commerce being conducted on the Internet and liken it to a truck taking goods to market I tend to answer “yes”. The Internet super highway is a shared good that benefits all citizens, even those who don’t directly use it. Even those who don’t have a computer, still benefit from the Internet in the same way those who don’t have a car benefit from the roads.

Question two is one I don’t have an answer to just yet. Is the government the right way to handle any potential problems with Internet access? To date we have no real instances of content being censored by providers. It’s really possible that there isn’t a problem that needs fixed other than companies like Netflix not wanting to pay more for using more. The problem comes if a company like Netflix has no other way to do business. If a multi-billion dollar company like Netflix can vanish overnight because a company like Comcast flicks a switch. I can’t really imagine that happening. Capitalism being what it is the millions of angry users would bombard Comcast, cancel it, and protest in various ways, and sue them for blocking a service they paid for all to get them to turn it back on. They would turn it back on to be sure. Realistically, they would never turn it off in the first place. Hard negotiations don’t mean unfair ones.

In the end of all this I’m really not sure where I stand on the matter other than to say I lean toward applying the same logic to the Internet as I do for the roads. While they aren’t completely analogous the concepts seem to mesh well.

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