A Short Note on “Net Neutrality” Regulation

Rick Weber has a good note lashing out against net neutrality regulation. The crux of his argument is that there are serious costs to consumers in terms of getting content slower to enforced net neutrality. But even if we ignore his argument, what if regulation isn’t even necessary to preserve the benefits of net neutrality (even though there really never was net neutrality as proponents imagine it to begin with, and it has nothing to do with fast lanes but with how content providers need to go through a few ISPS)? In fact, there is evidence that the “fast lane” model that net neutrality advocates imagine would

In fact, there is evidence that the “fast lane” model that net neutrality advocates imagine would happen in the absence of regulatory intervention is not actually profitable for ISPs to pursue, and has failed in the past. As Timothy Lee wrote for the Cato Institute back in 2008:

The fundamental difficulty with the “fast lane” strategy is that a network owner pursuing such a strategy would be effectively foregoing the enormous value of the unfiltered content and applications that comes “for free” with unfiltered Internet access. The unfiltered internet already offers breathtaking variety of innovative content and application, and there is every reason to expect things to get even better as the availabe bandwidth continues to increase. Those ISPs that continue to provide their users with faster, unfiltered access to the Internet will be able to offer all of this content to their customers, enhancing the value of their pipe at no additional cost to themselves.

In contrast, ISPs that chose not to upgrade their customers’ Internet access but instead devote more bandwidth to a proprietary “walled garden” of affiliated content and applications will have to actively recruit each application or content provider that participates in the “fast lane” program. In fact, this is precisely the strategy that AOL undertook in the 1990s. AOL was initially a propriety online service, charged by the hour, that allowed its users to access AOL-affiliated online content. Over time, AOL gradually made it easier for customers to access content on the Internet so that, by the end of the 1990s, it was viewed as an Internet Service Provider that happened to offer some propriety applications and content as well. The fundamental problem requiring AOL to change was that content available on the Internet grew so rapidly that AOL (and other proprietary services like Compuserve) couldn’t keep up. AOL finally threw in the towel in 2006, announcing that the proprietary services that had once formed the core of its online offerings would become just another ad-supported web-site. A “walled garden/slow lane” strategy has already proven unprofitable in the market place. Regulations prohibiting such a business model would be suprlusage.

It looks like it might be the case that Title II-style regulation is a solution in search of a problem. Add to it the potential for ISPs and large companies to lobby regulators to erect other barriers to entry to stop new competitors, like what happened with telecommunications companies under Title II and railroad companies under the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the drawbacks of pure net neutrality Rick pointed out, and it looks like a really bad policy indeed.

An argument against Net Neutrality

First off, Comcast sucks. Seriously, screw those guys.

But let’s assume a can opener and see if that doesn’t help us find a deeper root problem. The can opener is competition in the ISP network. Let’s consider how the issue of Net Neutrality (NN) would play out in a world where your choice of ISP looked more like your choice of grocery store. Maybe a local district is set up to manage a basic grid and ISPs bid for usage of infrastructure (i.e. cities take a page out of the FCC’s playbook on spectrum rights). Maybe some technological advance makes it easy to set up decentralized wireless infrastructure. But let’s imagine that world.

Let me also assume a bit of regulation. The goal is to create some simple rules that make the market work a bit better. Two regulations that I’d like to see are 1) a requirement that ISPs have a public list of any websites they restrict access to*, and 2) a limitation on how complicated end user agreements can be. I’m not sure these things would be possible in my anarchist utopia, but in a second best world of governments I’m pretty comfortable with them.

Let’s also create a default contracts for content providers with ISPs. “Unless otherwise agreed to, content providers (e.g. YouTube, my crazy uncle Larry, the cafe around the corner, etc.) relationship with ISPs is assumed to take the following form:…” An important clause would be “access/speed/etc. to your content will meet ______ specifications and cannot be negatively altered at the request of any third party.”

A similar default contract could be written for ISPs and end users. “Universal access under ____________ conditions will be provided and cannot be negatively altered at the request of any third party.”

Explicitly and publicly setting neutral defaults means we can get NN by default, but allow people the freedom to exchange their way out of it.

Do we need, or even want, mandated NN in that world? There are some clear potential gains to a non-neutral Internet. Bandwidth is a scarce resource, and some websites use an awful lot of it. YouTube and Netflix are great, but they’re like a fleet of delivery trucks creating traffic on the Information Super Highway. Letting them pay ISPs for preferred access is like creating a toll lane that can help finance increased capacity.

Replacing NN with genuine competition means that consumers who value Netflix can pay for faster streaming on that while (essentially) agreeing to use less of the net’s bandwidth for other stuff. We should encourage faster content, even if it means that some content gets that extra speed before the rest.

Competing ISPs would cater to the preferences and values of various niches. Some would seem benign: educational ISPs that provide streamlined access to content from the Smithsonian while mirroring Wikipedia content on their volunteer servers. Bandwidth for sites outside the network might come at some price per gigabyte, or it might be unlimited.

Other ISPs might be tailored for information junkies with absolutely every website made available at whatever speed you’re willing to pay for. Family friendly ISPs would refuse to allow porn on their part of the network (unsuccessfully, I suspect), but couldn’t stop other ISPs from anything. Obnoxious hate group ISPs would probably exist too.

There would be plenty of bad to go along with the good, just like there is in a neutral network.

I’m okay with allowing ISPs to restrict access to some content as long as they’re honest about it. The Internet might not provide a universal forum for all voices, but that’s already the case. If you can’t pay for server space and bandwidth, then your voice can only be heard on other people’s parts of the Internet. Some of those people will let you say whatever you want (like the YouTube comments section), but others are free to ban you.

Similarly, big companies will be in a better position to provide their content, but that’s already the case too. Currently they can spend more on advertising, or spend more on servers that are physically closer to their audience. A non-neutral net opens up one more margin of competition: paying for preferred treatment. This means less need to inefficiently invest physical resources for the same preferred treatment. (Hey, a non-neutral net is Green!)

There might be reason to still be somewhat worried about the free speech implications of a non-neutral net. As consumers, we might prefer networks that suppress dissident voices. And those dissident voices might (in the aggregate) be providing a public good that we’d be getting less of. (I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but I think plenty of smart people would take the point seriously.) If that’s the case, then let’s have the Postal Service branch out to provide modestly priced, moderate speed Internet access to whoever wants it. Not great if you want to do anything ambitious like play Counter Strike or create a major news network, but plenty fine for reading the news and checking controversial websites.

tl;dr: I can imagine a world without Net Neutrality that provides better Internet service and better economizes on the resources necessary to keep the Information Super Highway moving. But it’s not the world we currently live in. What’s missing is genuine market competition. To get there would require gutting much of the existing regulatory frameworks and replacing it with a much lighter touch.

What I’m talking about seems like a bit of a pipe dream from where we’re sitting. But if we could take the political moment of the Net Neutrality movement and redirect it, we could plausibly have a free and competitive Internet within a generation.

*Or maybe some description about how they filter out websites… something like a non-proprietary description of their parental filters for ISPs that (attempt to) refuse adult content access.

Net neutrality? Mail neutrality?

“Net neutrality,” you surely know, is the notion that all internet traffic ought to be treated equally. All it takes is that one little word, “equal,” to send hoards of left-wing morons to the barricades. For those who care to think through the issue, I offer the following.

If net neutrality is a good idea, so is “mail neutrality.” The Post Office should treat all mail equally. No more Priority Mail, not even First Class Mail. Just mail.  No more commuter express lanes on the freeways.  No priority for anybody, anywhere.

Data sent over the internet, or any local network for that matter, is divided into packets which have header information indicating the destination of the packet followed by a block of bytes that is the digital form of the data, whether text, audio, or video; web traffic, email, or ftp. As far as I know there is no provision in the ethernet protocol for priority information, but that isn’t necessary to prioritize packets.

Why should they be prioritized? Because different kinds of traffic have different natural degrees of urgency. email messages are not terribly urgent, but packets of video are, because if the those packets don’t keep coming at a steady pace, the result is irritating pauses and that little spinning circular thingy. If consumers of video want good service, they should pay for it. If email users who are in no hurry are willing to wait a bit and pay less, that’s good too. Markets generally tend to segment in this fashion. Starbucks doesn’t practice coffee neutrality. They offer fancy drinks to those willing to pay for them and plain coffee for those of us who just want the caffeine.

What rules should be set for internet providers? None, except common law prohibition and prosecution of theft and fraud. Let the service providers set their own policies for use of their private property.  In the interests of their bottom line, they will seek out practices that best serve their customers.  The crucial requirement is that politicians and bureaucrats be kept away.