Monday, November 24, 2014

How Neutral Is the Net?

Earlier this month, President Obama asked the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to classify the Internet as a public utility in order to preserve net neutrality.  While in principle the FCC is an independent regulatory authority, it usually takes the President seriously, and this proposed action led to both cheers and boos. 

The cheering came from mostly liberal observers who see threats to the Internet coming from internet service providers (ISPs), who have expressed a desire to discriminate (either favorably or unfavorably) among their customers.  One form of discrimination that has come up for discussion is that a big outfit such as Google or Facebook would pay ISPs for preferential treatment—a "fast lane" on the Internet so their websites would work faster compared to everyone else's.  Another idea, one that Comcast actually tried to implement a few years ago, is that certain types of Internet services that hog bandwidth (such as file sharing of music and videos) could be artificially slowed or discriminated against.  In that case, the FCC told Comcast to quit discriminating, and it did.  But more recently, similar attempts on the part of the FCC to enforce net neutrality have been struck down by federal courts, which said that the FCC doesn't have the legal authority to regulate the Internet in that way.  Hence the President's call to reclassify the Internet as a Title II public utility, which refers to a section in the FCC's enabling legislation that was originally intended to cover things like the telephone network.

And that leads to the boos, coming mainly from conservatives who see danger in letting the FCC treat the Internet basically the same way it treats the phone network.  Hidden on your phone bill is a little item called the Universal Service Fee.  On my cellphone bill it's $2.22 a month.  It was originally intended to provide subsidies for rural telephone service, but like most government fees and taxes, once it was planted as a tiny seed it put down roots and is now a mighty oak of revenue for the FCC, which supports itself entirely on fees.  If the phone network was not classified under Title II, the FCC could not assess this fee.  But such fees can be charged to a Title II service, which the Internet would become if the FCC does what the President asked it to.  That doesn't mean we would instantly start paying fees as soon as the FCC reclassified the Internet, but it does mean that they would have the legal right to.

From the viewpoint of consumers, it's hard to make an argument that a non-neutral net would be anything but bad.  The net (so to speak) effect of a non-neutral net would be to restrict access to something or other—either the firms that couldn't afford the extra fees that the ISPs want to charge the Googles for fast-lane services, or the types of services that cause ISPs headaches such as certain file-sharing activities.  But how neutral is the net today?

The picture is sometimes painted of a happy, absolutely free Internet world where equality reigns, versus a dismal, corporate-dominated few-rich among many-poor non-neutral Internet that the liberals warn us may happen if we don't guard net neutrality.  The facts are otherwise.  Right now the Internet is a great deal less neutral than it used to be.  If you don't belong to Facebook, for instance (as I don't), access to that world within a world of social media is highly restricted from you.  This has come about not because of anything an ISP has done, but because Facebook, in order to operate, requires certain information from you before you join, and hopes your signing up and consequent Facebook profile will attract other viewers.  Many of the various Google accounts and services work the same way.  My point is that there are huge regions on the Internet that are closed to you unless you pony up something to get into them (not necessarily cash), which is basically what the net-neutral advocates say will happen unless we preserve net neutrality.  But it already happens.

And what about people who live in areas that have slow or no access to the Internet?  It's not neutral to them.  Nobody has gone so far as to say every citizen of the U. S. has a right to X megabits per second access to the Internet.  But there was a time when the idea that everyone should have access to a telephone was a radical notion that telephone companies fought against, until the Bell System decided to join instead of fight and willingly put itself under the supervision of government authorities in exchange for promoting universal access. 

As I blogged in this space a few years ago, when you have a large network that thrives on maximizing the number of people connected to it, any artificial attempt to limit that access damages the system.  And over time, most such systems have ways of figuring this out, and tend to rid themselves of such restrictions.  But government fees and regulations are another matter.  It took years of court battles to free up the phone system from the old-style regulated monopoly pattern that was appropriate to the technology of 1945, but by 1980 was outmoded and needed to change. 

By and large, the Internet has stayed fairly neutral, not so much because the players all have a principled commitment to net neutrality, but because restrictions that move it in the non-neutral direction tend to harm the system as a whole.  My own inclination is to let things more or less alone, rather than reclassifying the Internet into a category that would make it vulnerable to a whole array of regulations that might be well-intended at the time, but could become albatrosses around the neck of a technology that has so far proved to be quite agile and dynamic.  But whatever happens, we should all realize that net neutrality is an ideal that has never been completely realized in practice.

Sources:  President Obama's statement on favoring FCC action to preserve net neutrality was announced on Nov. 10, 2014, and is available at  I referred to the conservative National Journal's piece on his move at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on network neutrality and the Federal Communications Commission.  My blog "Will the Net Stay Neutral if Google Doesn't Want It To?" appeared on Aug. 9, 2010.

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