Why Is Net Neutrality Important

Visualization of Internet routing paths

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet

Today the FCC’s Republican majority killed net neutrality. Why is this such a big deal? This brief discussion between a thoughtful reader of my blog and a response from an expert, a lawyer and computer scientist, clearly reveals the answer.  Here is that slightly edited discussion.

The net neutrality expert responding to my reader:

The crux of my concern is that the entire argument about net neutrality is framed in terms of consumption levels. By that argument, whether the consumption is from using Netflix is irrelevant, I take your position to be what you describe: metering. Metering is orthogonal to net neutrality.

You can have net neutrality and metering, the metering must simply not charge more or less depending on the source/destination of the various packets. Similarly, you can have metering without net neutrality, with metering rates different for various content.

When arguing about net neutrality let’s be clear what we mean: ISPs able to block content, able to bundle, able to favor particular sources of data, all either in whole or by discriminatory pricing that makes accessing particular data more or less expensive to the end user.

Now note my gracious reader responds to the above. He isn’t defensive like most people would be because he is concerned with the truth, not in being right. This is a sign of maturity, wisdom, and a good heart. How I wish more people would be willing to change their minds based on good arguments.

Thanks for correcting me. I have continued researching the subject and have discovered numerous errors in my thinking. For example, Netflix already pays a surcharge for its heavy use of bandwidth. Second, the feds have been regulating utilities since the basic law they passed in the 1930s. Oops.

But the most important mistake I made was in failing to grasp that the true significance of net neutrality is that, as you point out, the desired neutrality applies to sources and destinations, not bandwidths.

I can see a good argument for economic discrimination — making special deals with special sources or destinations. For example, if some corporation promises to transfer its humongous amounts of daily information at 2:00 AM each day, it makes perfect sense that a carrier should cut them a special deal. But that’s just a bandwidth argument one step removed from directness.

The part that I didn’t catch was the new ability of carriers to block sources or destinations for economically arbitrary reasons. I shudder to think of what would happen if a politically motivated actor were to gain control of even a portion of the backbone. They could delay delivery of information from blacklisted sites so as to conceal their actions yet partly control the political discourse.

The new regulations do require some degree of openness from the carriers, but I suspect that they’ll be able to conceal their unfair behavior all too easily.

I wonder if it would be useful to copy the methodology now used for electrical power in many states: the industry is broken into two sub-industries, the grid, and the generators. The grid companies have to carry the power from any generator at a standardized price. The generators feed power into the grid. That sure sounds like net neutrality to me.

And a final reply from the expert again:

Metering by time of day wouldn’t discriminate by content, sounds reasonable to me too. Would help smooth out usage too for operators who can take advantage of that.

Besides the further slanting the economic playing field, I entirely agree with you on the political consequences. It would have sounded far more absurd just a little over a year ago. Yet here we are. Shadow bans coming soon for people and ideas, all but certain. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_banning

My final thoughts

I have little doubt that those who would undermine net neutrality seek two things—wealth and power. As always, Republicans are in the pocket of big business. For more see my recent post, “The New American Civil War,” which discussed how killing net neutrality is part of a larger plan to undermine democracy.

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