If you log into Facebook or Twitter today, you might notice a lot of people talking about “net neutrality.” July 12th is the net neutrality Day of Action. Today, an imposing list of major web-based companies, the self-styled “Team Internet” will express their support of Obama-era net neutrality rules.
The consensus on net neutrality, sometimes referred to as “open internet” rules, seems overwhelming. An impressive cadre of internet giants are participating in the day of action, and even more tech companies back Net Neutrality in other ways.
This raises a lot of questions. What is net neutrality? Why is it important? Why do so many internet giants care so much about it? How will it impact the average user? Who’s on the other side of the net neutrality debate, and why do they oppose it?
What is Net Neutrality?
Battle For The Net defines Net Neutrality as follows.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet providers like Comcast & Verizon should not control what we see and do online.
Sounds great, right? Who wants internet service providers (ISPs) controlling what we see and do online? Unfortunately, the net neutrality debate is a bit more complicated than that.
According to Battle for the Net, there are two “teams” in the battle: Team Cable (the bad guys), and Team Internet (the good guys). Team Cable is made up of greedy, money-grubbing corporations like Comcast and Verizon. They want to limit free speech and oppress people with painfully high internet prices and sadistically slow Netflix downloads.
Team Internet, on the other hand, is made up of trendy, pro free-speech, anti-censorship internet companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook. These companies don’t care about profit at all. Their primary (and probably only) motivation is the good of humanity.
Or at least, that’s how the net neutrality advocates portray the situation. In reality, things are a bit more complicated than that. The truth is that no one opposes the definition of net neutrality that open internet advocates claim to support. Even the supposedly villainous “Team Cable” says they support an open internet. So if everyone, including the people who purportedly oppose net neutrality actually support it, then why the fuss?
It turns out that the net neutrality debate isn’t about ISPs controlling what we do online. It’s a debate over heavy-handed government regulation of the internet, disguised under the banner of open internet.
The major players in the “battle for net neutrality” are counting on the fact that most people won’t read past the first few lines of their website. They’re counting on the fact that most people will take their definition of net neutrality at face-value. They hope that everyone will simply take it for granted that the big ISPs (internet service providers) actually oppose net neutrality. And most importantly, they’re counting on the fact that no one is actually going to research the regulations that they’re protesting for under the banner of net neutrality.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Net neutrality proponents would like you to believe that ISPs censor the internet on a regular basis. The truth is, internet censorship does happen, but it’s not the ISPs who are responsible. If Google, Facebook and Twitter are really so opposed to censorship, then why don’t they lead by example?
Does YouTube really believe in a “free and open internet?” Then maybe they should stop censoring videos that oppose their political agenda. If Twitter really believes in an internet that isn’t blocked based on content, why does it censor anti-abortion tweets while allowing tweets from Planned Parenthood? If Google really wants an internet free from censorship, then why is YouTube, a Google subsidiary, allowed to censor videos from PragerU despite the fact that the videos contained no objectionable content?
If all these tech giants are really so devoted to an internet where the free exchange of ideas can take place, why don’t they start practicing what they preach? This would be far more effective than lobbying and protesting for more heavy-handed government regulation.
It’s kind of hard to take “Team Internet’s” claims of wanting a free and open internet seriously when several of the biggest players have actively censored content for political reasons. While it’s true that ISPs could theoretically censor content, ISPs have rarely, if ever, actually been known to do so. Furthermore, most of the prominent examples of ISP censorship have been at the behest of government agencies. Aside from one case in which Verizon briefly blocked a pro-choice group from using its text messaging services, ISPs have a relatively clean record on censorship.
On the other hand, the biggest net neutrality advocates are also some of the biggest perpetrators of internet censorship. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have all been accused of politically motivated censorship. Even Netflix did its bit of censoring when it removed Bill Nye’s biology lesson on gender from an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy for political reasons.
If all of these companies really wanted a free and open internet, why don’t they practice what they preach? It’s hard to take “Team Internet” seriously when their star players are also the biggest censorship offenders. If we really wanted to stop internet censorship, maybe we should start paying less attention to ISPs, and more attention to the smoking gun in the hands of “Team Internet.”
But this begs an obvious question. Clearly, “Team Internet” isn’t all that interested in a censorship-free internet. So what do they stand to gain by advocating for net neutrality? The answer: Title II.
Title II ≠ Net Neutrality
If you scroll down a bit further on any of the major net neutrality proponent websites, you’ll eventually get to the point where they start discussing the real crux of the issue: Title II. What is Title II, and why is it so important? According to save the internet, Title II “gives the FCC the authority it needs to ensure that companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon can’t block, throttle or otherwise interfere with web traffic.”
Well, that still sounds good… right? Who wants ISPs blocking or throttling web traffic?
However, if you actually read the Title II Regulations, they have relatively little to say about “blocking, throttling, or otherwise interfering.” Granted, the do contain some provisions, such as section 202, which prohibit ISPs from discriminating against individuals or groups. But in reality, Title II is about much more than preventing ISPs from blocking or censoring.
Title II subjects ISPs to a whole host of burdensome regulations. Furthermore, Title II gives the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) an unprecedented amount of control over the inner business workings of ISPs. But most important of all, Title II regulations would effectively allow the government to dictate how much ISPs can charge for their services. This means big savings for the companies who use the internet the most: Google, Facebook and Netflix.
Follow the Money
One of the big issues that net neutrality advocates care about is the issue of so-called fast lanes. Title II classification would prohibit internet service providers from creating fast lanes for users who pay more, and slow lanes for everyone else. Net neutrality advocates are making the subtle implication that the existence of fast lanes is the equivalent of censorship. But, what Google and Netflix don’t want you to know is that these fast lanes already exist, and they have nothing to do with censorship or discrimination.
Google, Facebook, Netflix, and other big internet companies already have direct connections to ISPs which allow them to serve out their content more efficiently. These are, in effect, the fast lanes that “Team Internet” claims to hate. The problem is, without fast lanes, big internet companies wouldn’t be able to serve out their content nearly as quickly. In fact, without some sort of prioritization, services like Netflix and Skype might not be able to function at all, and definitely not as effectively.
Nobody actually wants the fast lanes to go away. “Team Internet” just wants to use the fast lanes for free. Netflix wants you to believe that they care about Title II for the sake of an open internet, but what they really care about is their own bottom line. The fact is that the existence of fast lanes has nothing to do with internet censorship.
One-Speed Internet: Slow
The creation of fast lanes represents a significant investment of time and money from the ISPs. Servers don’t just pop up out of the ground for free. They require time and money to maintain and upgrade. Fast lanes to major content providers are a good idea, but they aren’t free. Google, Netflix and Amazon are all making a lot of money from these fast lanes. Why shouldn’t they also foot the bill for the upgraded connection?
Most internet services simply don’t need the blazing fast speeds that Netflix needs in order to function properly. The fact that ISPs want to charge Netflix and other big content providers for faster connections isn’t discrimination, it’s just good business practice. What would really be unfair would be to force small content providers to pay for speeds they don’t need, just to support the large content providers that need the faster connection.
Reclassifying the internet under Title II could prohibit ISPs from charging extra for fast lanes. Of course, the obvious result of such a regulation is that the ISPs will simply stop providing the faster service. If ISPs can’t make money off of internet fast lanes, then they will have no motivation to provide them. Title II reclassification will remove the major incentive for that free-market growth which is responsible for the internet we enjoy today. So-called “net neutrality” will get rid of fast lanes eventually, but the results won’t make anyone happy.
Slow Internet for Everyone
Major internet companies aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from Title II. Title II also allows the FCC to set a maximum cost for internet service. Section 205 allows the FCC to “prescribe just and reasonable charges” for internet service. Section 201 makes it illegal for ISPs to charge more for internet than what the FCC deems just and reasonable. This regulation sounds good, as it would give the FCC the power to lower internet costs for everyone.
The problem, of course, is the same as with the issue of fast lanes. If internet service providers have no profit motivation to develop faster web service, they won’t. This means that everyone will eventually wind up with the same speed of internet: slow. Granted, it will probably be inexpensive, but the ISPs will no longer have any motivation to improve internet service.
If Not Title II, Then What?
No one disagrees with the basic idea of net neutrality. No one (except maybe Google, Facebook and Twitter) actually wants to censor the internet. And most people agree that internet should be provided at a reasonable charge without discrimination. But Title II is not the right approach to achieve any of these goals.
One major step forward would be to break up the broadband monopoly. Most people in the U.S. only have access to one high-speed internet provider. Even in cities where there are two providers, the two providers rarely compete on price, existing instead as a “duopoly.” But this is something that could be easily addressed under existing anti-trust laws. Other countries are able to offer the same internet service at a fraction of the price we pay in the U.S. because their governments have broken up the ISP monopolies. The government could go a long way to enforcing net neutrality simply by enforcing anti-trust laws on ISPs.
Breaking up the monopoly would also address the non-existent problem of ISP censorship. With real competition, ISPs would have a hard time censoring information, even if it were legal to do so. If subscribers could choose between several ISPs, then if one started blocking content, subscribers could simply switch to another.
Stop The Power Grab
It may in fact be that there is a need for additional regulations which block ISPs from discriminating against subscribers. I’m highly skeptical of “Team Internet’s” claim that ISPs discriminate against racial minorities or political opponents, particularly because no one seems to have a single example of this happening, ever. But, if there was ever the need for such net neutrality laws, they should be written from scratch by congress, rather than giving the FCC unnecessary regulatory authority.
In any event, classification under Title II is the wrong approach to net neutrality. So when Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter try to harass you into supporting their regulatory nightmare version of net neutrality, remember that they’re the ones who stand to gain from Title II, not you. The real path to an open internet is through competition among service providers, not through heavy-handed regulation designed to benefit big tech companies.