Thursday, November 5, 2009
Ellipses hooked me up with a recent story on net neutrality that's worth a read and was also the impetus for this blog post. The writer, Larry Downes, makes an argument against the concept of net neutrality (hence forth referred to as NN), and its not a bad one.
The FCC seems to be chomping at the bit to be in charge of enforcing NN, but Downes questions their ability to do so effectively. He points out that the FCC would only have control of NN via ancillary jurisdiction, which sort of means they made up a rule to try and adopt the net as their baby. They've already been challenged on this jurisdiction once by Comcast and would no doubt be challenged again if other private companies felt threatened.
The point of NN, if anyone doesn't know, is that the internet should be made available to everyone at a fair price without the interference of private providers throttling back speeds. The reasons they would do this are to slow down access to websites that might be considered competitors of your provider or to decrease speeds for features like downloads and video streaming in an attempt to sell more expensive plans that would advertise faster access to these assets. Considering that the internet is fast becoming the number one resource for access to breaking news and events, you don't have to think too hard about it to see why it would be important to keep access available to everyone including those who can't afford premium plans. Imagine how many people might have gotten out of the Towers in New York if internet news traveled as fast in 2001 as it does now. You also don't need an MBA to see how putting a muzzle on that access will inspire those who can afford it to pay more to take that muzzle back off.
Downes mentions fears that the FCC could impose ridiculous decency regulations on the internet, something I find highly unlikely by virtue of it being nearly impossible to enforce, but he mostly suggests that any role the FCC tries to play in this theater would nothing more than a paper tiger. He argues that the FCC hasn't exercised any potent enforcement over the properties it does control, pointing to their inability to retain the half million dollar fine levied for the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction (a federal court threw it out). Why then, he asks, should we expect them to wield any power over a medium that can look and operate completely different in a matter of months? I would personally point out the failures of the MPAA and RIAA to stymie illegal file sharing as an example of the viscosity of the internet; the technology to do so simply moved too fast and became too hard to track for those agencies and now the organizations that make such file sharing possible consistently manage to stay one step ahead of copyright law. Even when a file sharing giant is taken down, ten new outlets tend to pop up in place of them.
While Downes recognizes the threat to both consumers and the industry from any hasty agency action, he mostly is advocating a wait and see approach based on the previous point. The internet is changing too much too fast to believe that any regulations put into place now will be adequate literally 24 hours from now, especially if enforced by the FCC.
Downes is not the only one arguing against NN. Many ISPs and investors argue that NN will vanquish competition in the market and undercut the incentive to innovate. Others follow Downes' line if questioning if the government can handle such a responsibility, and if it should. The arguments in favor of NN are often made by consumers as well as major internet companies (NOT providers) like eBay, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Vonage and Microsoft. In other words, those that would clearly benefit from NN. They claim that ISPs hold too much power over access and have no incentive to make it affordable to consumers or said companies who also require access to be affordable to profit from online business. They also claim allowing ISPs to be the gatekeepers creates an unfair business model and additionally that its unfair to hold different internet content to different standards of bandwidth allowance. See below for sources.
Wait a minute, industry claiming competition will be stifled and the incentive for innovation will be destroyed? Consumers claiming monopolistic business models make price gouging unavoidable and that government intervention is needed to level the playing field? Its amazing how much this is starting to sound like one of our favorite topics around here.
Just like the aforementioned topic, NN is largely an issue of lots of money and who should get it. Its also an issue of the governments' role in the lives of its population and whether or not they can be trusted to act fairly.
My opinion? Downes makes a good point in recognizing the nature of the internet and the difficulty in regulating it. In fact, the point he makes is exactly why I have very little fear that our government could really dismantle the peoples' access to the internet, even if they wanted to. Some want us to view the government as big brother in relation to a lot of issues right now, but that's fairly unrealistic. I'm pretty sure that in no point in history has the population of a country voted a totalitarian dictatorship into power. Well, maybe the Old Republic in Star Wars III. But that was a long long time ago. Most dictatorships come as a result of a coup. Seeing as how we're all still free voters and our government still turns executive leadership over to a different administration at a maximum interval of every eight years, the fear of a government takeover overnight is more or less propaganda. We heard it from the left over the last eight years and we are hearing more loudly from the right this year, but as long as voters retain a modicum of intelligence and a smidgen of motivation to cast votes in elections, the government will remain simply the bureaucratic mouthpiece of the people, never especially effective and always a source of irritation, but about as scary as a twenty foot tall pillow man. The population remains in complete control of the makeup of the government so long as they remember that they do. Its no coincidence that the ones always decrying government involvement are the ones in the party not in control at the time.
As far as the need for NN, I don't think we're far off. I can personally attest to this as I watch my internet bill inexplicably continue to rise every six months or so. As a business, an ISP should be allowed to continue to flourish and certainly has ways to offering luxury plans to high paying consumers, but as internet access comes closer and closer to being a necessity, its very important that it remain affordable to everyone and that said affordable plans aren't crap. After all, how do you expect people to get jobs to pay those high internet bills if they can't mail resumes to employers?
The ultimate goal here is finding a way to keep the doors open for internet consumers without interfering with the nature of the content of the internet whatsoever. I firmly believe that anything short of an outright attack against ISPs will not hinder their ability to profit, so there isn't much to consider in the way of damaging them; just make sure they are forced to make affordable and fair access available and leave it at that. ISPs continue to thrive, consumers retain access, end of story.
Small digression: I imagine that someone somewhere will suggest a "public option" for internet access. A government run option for health care has been proven to work in other countries and presents no real opportunity to screw it up that the voters can't fix in four years. But the last thing you want to do is give the government control of the internet. Frankly, I don't trust conservatives to wield it fairly if they return to control. I'm just bringing this up because I know someone else is going to if I don't. The difference here is that health care is for making your citizens healthy. There is absolutely zero incentive for the government to do anything but try to keep as many voters as healthy and alive as possible so they can continue to vote. Everybody wins. However, if the government controls a significant portion of internet traffic, there's every incentive in the world to use that as a method of telling the voters what to think and when. Bad idea. We've seen government agencies work well across the world in many areas including health care. We've also seen times when the government has controlled the media and it has never worked. So, anyone who starts thinking "public ISP," don't.
It is my belief that the FCC is extremely ill-suited for the role of NN regulator. I think you need a new agency for this, one who's role exists solely at each end of the wires and nowhere in them; the greatest appeal of the internet by far is its total freedom. Its the wild west, the very embodiment of a new and constantly explorable frontier with the added benefit of anonymity and accessibility to basically everyone. The internet is nothing if not a (relatively) consequence free environment where free speech flourishes in a way not available anywhere in the real world, including the USA, and for that reason alone, it is imperative that it not be touched, even in spite of all the dark and treacherous happenings in the back alleys of the digital world. If something gets on the internet that shouldn't be there, that will always remain in the jurisdiction of the real world in my mind. Cut off the source, not the medium. As I have said, I doubt in full the FCC's ability to hinder this environment, but I don't think they won't try. That's why the responsibility needs to fall in a new agency with crystal clear jurisdictional boundaries drawn for them.
Sorry this was so damn long. Sphere: Related Content