When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”. The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that. Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.
I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation. If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy. For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this. Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems. While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.
Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality. I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it). In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality. It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions. You can read the proposal here. First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you. Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).
Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off. In all his guises. Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it. One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years. Why will this occur? Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode. Or something like that.
Let’s put that one to rest right now. The internet isn’t going away any time soon. It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.
Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity. The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right. We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion). We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free. Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.
A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?
Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).
But should we? Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality? Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do. Why? Because you pay for it. I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you. Why? Because I pay for it. Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones. Why? Because they pay for it.
Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?
And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum. As one pundit put it: What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?
The short answer is: Nothing would stop them. The long answer adds: Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either. Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?
And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me. I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual. The university I attended was littered with Coke machines. Really. Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus. Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door. But Pepsi was nowhere to be found. It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university. Why was it this way? Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove. Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.
Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?
Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story. It’s about a mythical time before there was television. In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV. In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose. Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air. Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost. The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.
Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it. This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air. Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.
It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it. To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality. Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long. In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.
Does any of that sound familiar? Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge? Let me give you a hint: It’s about money. The internet has never been free. It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way. Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data). The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven. Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.
And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality. The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent. To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing. In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck. In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.
You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation). If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing). Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today). In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).
I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away. If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.