Monday, December 18, 2017

Will We Miss Net Neutrality?

On Thursday, Dec. 14, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favor of repealing the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules that have been in effect since 2015.  Like so many things lately, net neutrality has become a partisan issue, and the vote went along party lines, the three Republican appointees on the Commission voting in favor of repeal and the two Democrats opposing it.  Polls show that the idea of net neutrality is popular, with as many as 80% of those asked being in favor of it.  But the pollsters generally didn't ask respondents to define net neutrality, or to say why they favored it.  Amid the protests and shrill voices raised on both sides of the issue, it's hard to get a grasp on what exactly is at stake, and what the pros and cons are.  A little history may help in this regard.

Among other things, most modern governments are expected to protect the weak against the strong.  This is an elementary aspect of justice.  In the late 1800s, during the rapid expansion of another kind of network—the railroad network—the public became aroused over perceived abuses that the railroads were practicing.  Farmers discovered that the railroads were manipulating shipping charges to curry favor with certain interest groups, and handing out free passenger passes to influential politicians.  The problems were so pervasive that the first free-standing administrative commission in the executive branch of the federal government was established to ride herd on the railroads:  the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC.

The ICC established rules for what became known as "common carriers"—enterprises that were so essential to the public that regulation by government was regarded as necessary.  The idea of a common carrier spread to other systems such as bus lines, airlines, and public utilities like electric and water systems.  In exchange for close regulation by the government, the business being regulated was allowed to make a reasonable profit.  Some industries eventually came around to welcoming common-carrier status, because they found that manipulating the government's rules in their favor wasn't that hard and it stabilized their business models. 

In 2003, a Columbia University professor named Tim Wu coined the phrase "net neutrality" to extend the common-carrier idea to the internet, which was not regulated in any meaningful way at the time.  In the case of the internet, the potential for the kind of abuse that the railroads got into trouble for is always there.  And there have been some incidents prior to the 2015 adoption of formal net-neutrality rules that give advocates of net neutrality some credibility.  According to the Wikipedia article on net neutrality, the internet service provider (ISP) Comcast took measures to throw digital roadblocks in the way of the troublesome service BitTorrent, which was using up a lot of bandwidth at the time, and the FCC has fined AT&T for similar misbehavior.

But the net neutrality rules that the FCC has now pledged to abandon may go too far in the other direction.  According to ISPs, the rules left them with limited flexibility for expansion and the offering of new services.  Treating everybody the same on the internet is a fine idea in principle, but working out the details can get complicated, and there are genuine judgment calls involved in an ISP's decisions of how to allocate limited fiber-optic and especially wireless bandwidth to best serve the incredible variety of customers, and websites that customers want to visit. 

We have seen how the content providers themselves (e. g. Facebook) have done things that go against some principles of net neutrality, such as the idea of no censorship.  Both for legal and moral reasons, Facebook polices itself and removes posts it deems to be unsuitable for various reasons.  But it's not an ISP that's doing this, it's Facebook. 

The ISPs, as ISPs, do not have the resources (or I suspect, the inclination) to do a lot of fine-grain discrimination, which is probably the kind of thing that many people who favor net neutrality are worried about.  Basically, the ISPs don't have time to pick through the floods of data that they must ship around every microsecond.  The most they can do in a typical situation is to note sites and services that produce unusually demanding traffic patterns.  And I think the most that they are hoping for in the repeal of net neutrality is to gain some freedom more efficiently to allocate their bandwidth in order to serve the most customers with the fewest additional resources of hardware and software. 

Maybe that is a Pollyanna-ish and naive view of ISPs, but it's hard for me to imagine that some of the more dire consequences foretold by the proponents of net neutrality will result from its abandonment:  widespread censorship, the inability of small-scale websites and enterprises to compete with larger ones based on something the ISP is doing, and so on.  One concern, transparency, is largely being taken care of by the internet itself.  Tricks like artificially degrading services are quickly detected and exposed by users, and it's easy for protesters to gather a digital lynch mob with torches and clubs and go after the bad guys.  Whether the bad guys mend their ways is another question, but my point is that if an ISP tries anything unpopular, they will be called out for it.  And this is an important self-regulating aspect of the internet that we may not appreciate as much as we should.

So my own answer is, no, I don't think we'll miss what we've had for only the last two years anyway, in terms of the Obama-era net neutrality regulations.  Even critics of the FCC decision admit that nothing is going to change right away, as the Commission has to come up with alternative rules and perhaps turn over some aspects of its work with the internet to the Federal Trade Commission. 

The internet is a modern necessity, not much less essential than electric power, and it is appropriate for governments to make sure that whoever qualifies as "weak" with regard to it is protected against unfair and unjust depredations by ISPs, or anybody else for that matter.  But even in the bad old days before government regulations were in place, abuses were fairly rare.  And it looks like the commercial instinct of self-preservation will keep ISPs from doing anything really dastardly, now that net neutrality rules are going away. 

Sources:  I referred to reports on the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality carried by at and  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on net neutrality and the Interstate Commerce Commission.

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