Network Neutrality

A day off is a good day to write an essay. Here are some things I think I think about network neutrality. Some are pro, some are anti. The reason for this is, well, the first thing I think I think.

  1. I think that I think network neutrality is not an issue that reduces easily to soundbites or that should break down easily along ideological lines, although like everything else it does anyway. Like the gun debate, it also requires some technical knowledge to parse, and a stubborn insistence that everyone is affected so everyone’s opinion is meaningful is not really appropriate here. Anyone can learn enough to have at least a semi-informed opinion, but very few people have. If your opinion came from your favorite political pundit or is the opinion that everyone in your party is expected to have, it’s probably not a very good opinion.
  2. I think I think most people don’t want real network neutrality or know what it is. If you work for a large company, your company probably has at least two connections between its network and the Internet, and it sends your traffic out over whichever one is “closer” (in the judgment of a protocol called BGP) to the network you’re trying to reach. In this scenario there is a chance that the fastest way for me as a home internet user to get to Medium or Facebook or, let’s be honest here, YouPorn is hopping from my ISP to theirs straight through your company’s network. Your company does not allow this because the network engineers who work there have set up rules to not allow transit (occasionally this gets screwed up and someone has a really bad day; occasionally countries are suspected of screwing this up on purpose to spy on unencrypted transit traffic). The fact that your company doesn’t allow my porn to pass through its network is a gross violation of network neutrality. No one minds.
  3. I think that there has been a lot of fake news put out about this, which is a sign people are desperate. The thing you may have seen about Portugal is fake news. You can get 5gb of unrestricted data cheaper in Portugal than you can in the United States — or you can get these packages with 10gb of restricted data for the same price. Look it up if you don’t believe me. I like Cory Doctorow as a rule, but he has an axe to grind here that is probably related to that thing about having the opinion he’s simply expected to have.
  4. I think that most people on the free market side of this think that Verizon, CenturyLink, and AT&T are free enterprises whose property rights are in danger. They are not. The Baby Bells are Communist bureaus that pay dividends (including, in the interest of full disclosure, to me, as a former employee of one of them with company stock in a 401(k)). Their networks were built with government money under government orders and then set loose when their ‘natural monopolies’ over laying telephone lines were no longer natural and convenient and no longer necessarily included copper lines. This complicates things in the same way that half the private enterprise in Russia being owned by the former KGB complicates things.
  5. I think I think that when most people think of network neutrality they think of Comcast throttling their Netflix. Comcast is a Tier 2 network provider. They’re buying the internet you buy from them from bigger, badder fish in the sea. They may rub their nipples when you come in to change your cable box like in the South Park skit, but they’re not really what this is about. As for what Netflix is…
  6. I think I think Netflix is an 800 lb. gorilla, as are many of the companies ostensibly on their side, like Amazon and Google. And I think there is a reason Netflix has had such a hard time deciding what its side even is. I am less worried about Comcast deciding not to carry Netflix traffic unless Netflix pays up then I am worried about Netflix telling Comcast it is not allowed to carry other video providers if it wants to carry Netflix.
  7. I think that there is a debate to be had here, but no apocalyptic scenarios or moral panics. Network neutrality started for wired connections in the United States in 2010, and for wireless ones in 2015. If the regulatory side loses, you are not looking at the end of the Internet. You are looking at a rollback to a time when the Internet operated… almost exactly the way it does now, actually. And if the free market side loses, you are not looking at a Ministry of Posts and Telecoms monopoly that takes six months to get you an internet connection. You’re looking at the same cable/telco duopoly you probably have now getting you reasonably fast but not excellent internet at a reasonable but not excellent price.

I got to seven!