All right, here’s my Explainer on Net Neutrality. There are many like it, but this Explainer is mine.
I spent eight years as an engineering middle manager at Google, then two years in charge of the U.S. Digital Service, as an Obama appointee and White House staff. I am writing from memory, not writing a term paper, so the details may not be exactly right.
“Net Neutrality,” as the words are used today, means a bag of FCC decisions that took shape during 2014–2015. This version, which I fought for in the White House, is sometimes known as “common carrier” or “Title II,” for reasons that have to do with the Communications Act of 1934. The effect is that an internet service provider (the company that you pay your Internet bill to, which is probably Verizon, Comcast, or Time Warner) is only allowed to hook up all the computers together and charge for access, and is not allowed to change the behavior of the network depending on what you’re using it for.
This is the “strongest” version of a variety of “net neutrality” proposals, where “strongest” means the most restrictions on what your ISP can do. As of December 2017, this is the status quo.
The change that the FCC is about to make is to reverse the “common carrier” decision, which will remove the restraints on how your ISP handles your Internet traffic. They will be free to set up their networks to behave differently for different types of traffic.
That’s it; that is what will change. All further argument and color commentary results from different assumptions about what will happen next. Therefore, here is some color commentary, followed by some speculations about what happens next.
Consider that the big telcos once wanted common carrier status, because it gives them some other protections they like, such as not being liable when somebody uses their network to commit a crime. While the internet was being built, they were more than happy to add $100 to your phone bill in exchange for one more copper loop and some slightly different switching apparatus.
But now, the business of internet-building has gotten boring, and everyone can see that the real money is being made by companies that ride on top of it, which are Google, Netflix, Facebook, and so on. Under the current regulations, the ISPs are forced to sit and watch all this money pass them by, and they don’t like that.
Basically, Comcast and Verizon built the series of tubes in the expectation that they would only carry Usenet, porn, and Usenet porn — nothing valuable, and certainly nothing that a respectable company like AT&T wanted on its hands. So they designed their business to be “hey, we just make tubes, we don’t look at what’s inside.” But now the tubes are stuffed with money, and they want to crack those tubes open and divert some of that money.
So one way of looking at this is that it’s just a fight between one clique of megacorporations, and a different clique, and they are battling it out for a bigger share of your money. This is not wrong.
This framing, and my resume, probably make you think I side with Google and Facebook. Not true! I am on nobody’s side. I don’t trust a single one of these companies to do what is good for consumers, or “the internet,” without a gun to their heads. The Google-Facebook faction has a little bit less monopoly power, because medically speaking Myspace and Hulu still exist, whereas I always live in a place where there is literally no way to get Internet tubes except to pay Comcast. So if the playing field has to be tilted one way or the other, I would still rather have the “regulated” tilt.
If you are wondering how Verizon and Comcast make money by cracking open the tubes, here’s how. Comcast goes to Netflix and says: “This is a nice little company you have here. It would be a shame if something happened to it. Like if all your customers got slow, crappy connections that made your streams unwatchable. But that doesn’t have to happen, if you pay our very reasonable fee.” Then Verizon does the same thing. Exactly this happened in 2014.
Or, alternately, Comcast innovates up a whole new set of “basic” and “premium” Internet packages. If you only want the trash of the Internet, the basic package is only $100 a month. If you want the luxury experience that includes high-speed YouTube and games, that’s an extra $20 a month. Encrypted messaging is an extra $50 for our “business class” service. Is this business model sounding familiar? Here’s a current example, from Portugal:
Of course, since this is God-fearing American capitalism, my guess is that they will do both of those things at once.
But hey, this is also God-fearing American politics, which means 50.1% of the country disagrees. Some people, and a whole lot of fake comments on the FCC web site, are making the different assumption that when freed of heavyweight government regulation, Verizon and Comcast will offer us better products and more consumer choice. I assume these people live on a planet where there are no ATM fees, no predatory banks, where utility deregulation made the electricity cheaper, and where airline baggage fees improved my market power.
I would be happy to move to that planet. If you find the portal, please let me know.
Postscript. Let the record show that I didn’t spend my White House time on net neutrality because I thought it was the #1 most important issue facing the U.S. of A. I did it because that was my swim lane, and those were my assignments. In those days, one did not wander around the West Wing beeping randomly, in the manner of, say, six fireflies in a jar.