The Net neutrality issue is complicated and somewhat misunderstood- but it is potentially far more important that most people realize. This post attempts to explain the issue.
Imagine if you were driving your new Ford Fusion, about to enter the highway and you were met with a barrier saying “Fords not allowed on the highway – Ford drivers must use local roads”
You would be outraged.
Imagine if you were flying your usual airline from NY to Chicago and during the flight it was announced that the flight will take 4 hours as that airline is no longer allowed to fly directly.
You would be angry.
Internet service providers are like the highway or the airways – they provide a medium for transportation. In the case of the highway it is a medium for cars to travel on and similartly ISP’s provide a medium for data to travel on the internet.
We all expect such utilities like highways or an ISP to provide us unbiased access – i.e to be neutral. As the highway should not decide which car brand should have access, an ISP should not decide which streaming music service should have access or better access than another. The consumer should be free to decide which brand of car or which flight they choose or which streaming service they want to use. Whether to buy a truck or a sports car, whether to buy a Ford or Mercedes – that is a consumer choice, depending on their needs and budget – knowing that any of them can be driven on the highway. Choosing a shorter or longer flight, choosing United or American – that is a consumer choice, knowing that both have equal right to fly in the sky.
This is the crux of the net neutrality debate. The current administration and the FCC chairman, Mr. Ajit Pai, want to undue net neutrality. What they are proposing is that the ISP does not have to be unbiased – they can decide not to allow a Ford to travel on it, they can decide which service they will give better or worse access to. They can sell access or quality of access to the highest bidder. They are being allowed to be the highway that denies access to your Ford because Ford did not pay the highway more than another car company.
So as a consumer when you are trying to choose a service, you will lose the ability to make your own choice. You will not be able to choose a service based on its merit or quality or value – as the ability for that company to provide you the service will depend on whether they can pay enough money to the ISPs. Thus your choice will be dictated and influenced by the ISPs.
Well you can simply dismiss this as “big business” – but this very different. Yes, different companies have different ability to influence a consumer by advertising – but the difference is that the choice is still yours. If you are not allowed to drive that Ford on the highway, the choice is effectively taken away from you.
Net neutrality is a complex topic and thus somewhat misunderstood. A wireless company that throttles your bandwidth speed after a certain amount of usage or charges you more – is not a net neutrality issue – those are just the terms of service of that company. There is still a significant amount of misinformation on the meaning of net neutrality as it is some nuanced and complicated. Recently Verizon announced they would throttle streaming access and cap certain streaming quality and several articles said that this was an affront to net neutrality. That is not true at all. The ISP’s are access companies providing access to content. Access providers may have different service levels and quality, similarly Content providers may have different quality and service levels – but Access should not be biased to one Content or another. Verizon’s throttling applies to all streaming content – it does not distinguish between one or another, i.e. it is still neutral. Verizon is simply making a business decision on their service and pricing, similar to airlines charging different amounts for baggage – they don’t care what the color or brand of your luggage is.
Ajit Pai is not a technologist. He is a lawyer that worked for Verizon. He doesn’t really understand technology, he is just thinking about companies like Verizon who are stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of his rolling back net neutrality. Start up and small businesses lose – as they will not be able to compete with the larger established companies – it stifles innovation. Imagine if a new innovative video streaming company is launched with a fantastic product. But they have to pay the ISP a ton of money to allow their service to be delivered at the same speed as an established company – well guess what – as a consumer you will never see the new company’s service. To you, their service will appear slow as they were unable to buy equal speed of delivery on the ISP.
The common argument I hear is “..so what if one music or video streaming company is impacted…there are more important issues facing us today…” This is one of the reasons that Ajit Pai is able to try and roll back these regulations so easily – the broader impact is not fully understood. It is not about music of videos – it is about a much larger issue – the control of dissemination of information on the internet. The media is called the third pillar of democracy – as the media creates checks and balances by providing information to the public. The internet has become a dominant part of the media, overtaking traditional print and TV. No matter what, we all rely on some ISP to give us access to the internet. If the ISP can influence what and how information flows through to us, and this can be bought, then we run a major risk of losing control of the media.
Ajit Pai may just be a pawn in a much larger game – a much more dangerous game. One of the first steps in the loss of a democracy, to a dictator, tyrant etc – is the loss of an unbiased media. Once the media can be controlled, it just becomes a propaganda machine. If the ISP’s neutrality is for sale, it opens up the possibility for bad actors to disseminate their own news and information with priority over others – de facto controlling the media.
The irony is that Ajit Pai’s parents emigrated from India – a country that prides itself on its determination to maintain net neutrality. A few years ago, Facebook offered free internet access in India with the caveat that FB would control the content that was accessible and it had to be via FB. It was rejected by the people and the government keeping in line with its fierce protection of net neutrality. Ajit Pai should maybe talk to his parents.
Cartoon courtesy Steve Sack, Star Tribune editorial cartoons