I have different Net Neutrality worries.

I admit to being somewhat confused about net neutrality, but that probably means I’m only slightly less confused than any of my friends who feel confident they understand it.  My instinct is that (once again) the Internet industry is sowing a bit of fear that (once again) the Internet is in grave danger of not working as it should for “the people.”  I say this because the headlines, cartoons, and editorials most often shared by my generally progressive-leaning friends all convey some variation on the theme that without net neutrality, we will wind up with two Internets — a very very fast Internet for big entities with deep pockets, and a very very slow Internet for the rest of us.  On this matter of the extremely bifurcated web alone, I say hogwash if for no other reason than the fact that no entity stands to benefit from “slowing us down” as it were.  Instead, it is more likely that the fear of being disenfranchised is being dangled in front of consumers because Silicon Valley corporations would like us to subsidize their enterprises — that is more than we already do.  Writes the Chairman of NewCompetition Scott Cleland in an editorial on The Daily Calller:

“The rub here is that what big video streamers, like Google-YouTube & Netflix, really want is for the FCC to ban “paid prioritization” — i.e., the prioritizing of Internet traffic that depends on real-time delivery ahead of traffic that does not.

Translation: Silicon Valley covets a proverbial free lunch on Internet consumers’ tab.”

So, regarding the prospect of the “two Internets” rhetoric, suppose we have an entity called Netflix, which is presently the largest consumer of bandwidth worldwide.  And suppose there are other services just like Netflix, all of which expect to grow in terms of volume, in terms of image and sound quality, and in terms of consumer demand.  Now, suppose we have an ISP or some other entity considering the prospect of making stranded investments in the infrastructure required to enable continued delivery to meet increasing demand for more data-intensive content (e.g. 4K video).  The first question is why it would be unreasonable to propose that the Netflixes or the YouTubes or the Hulus of the world pay rates commensurate with their demand on this infrastructure; and the more important question for consumers is why such a proposal would necessarily result in a lack of access to high-speed connections at affordable prices?  In such a scenario, both the Netflix (content distributor) and the ISP (infrastructure investor) will lose their shirts.  It is in nobody’s interests anywhere to disenfranchise consumers from high-speed access to the web; it would be like filling a store full of expensive inventory, locking the doors, and expecting to make sales.

We do see stories from time to time of a more conspiratorial nature, invoking ideological motivations when implying that a not-for-profit or a start-up will be slowed into extinction on the dusty wagon trail of the “slow” Internet while the big, corporate interests and well-funded political organizations race along the sleek superhighway.  But, again, this doesn’t make any sense from a technical or a policy perspective per se.  The mall across the river from my house has a whopping electric bill in contrast to mine because it demands much more from the power plant than my house ever could.  Nevertheless, the lights in my house come on just as instantly as the lights in the mall.  There is no reason why a major user of bandwidth paying more for that use should slow down a relatively small user of bandwidth.  Moreover, we already have a precedent for “uneven” access in place, and it’s actually more fair than in years past.  ISPs in most, if not all, markets offer tiered pricing for access at different speeds, and this makes sense.  If your neighbor wants to play video games online and needs top speed, why should you subsidize his use, if all you want is email and basic website loading?  We can argue whether or not the prices in place are reasonable, but the principle that consumers pay for what they actually need or want or can afford is hardly unfair. And, again as Cleland points out, this is how the technology works:

‘”Virtually every Internet user also understands that different broadband technologies — fiber, coax, copper, satellite, fixed wireless or mobile wireless — all naturally generate a range of broadband speed lanes because of physics.

The technology one chooses to use naturally creates faster and slower Internet lanes.”

Setting aside overlapping concerns about mega-mergers (I honestly believe that’s a separate issue), one of the interesting aspects of this hotly-contested kerfuffle over net neutrality is that it is so typically American with its many ideological contradictions.  One the one hand, we like to believe that “the internet belongs to everyone,” but of course the only way to make that manifest with regard to investment in maintaining and upgrading the system would be to do so exclusively with public funds.  Such an approach would likely rankle conservatives and progressives for different reasons — free-market, anti-socialist arguments on one side, and keeping the government from “controlling the Internet” on the other.  Thus, ironically enough, by insisting that the “internet belongs to the people,” we functionally insist that it belongs to private enterprise and hope that the people’s government can create a regulatory structure to protect our common interest in having a “free and open internet,” whatever that means.  But not too much regulation, mind you, because again, we don’t want the government to have control;  but we also don’t want the corporations in charge either because all they care about is money and ruling the universe.

So, if you think you’ve got net neutrality all sussed, my hat’s off to you; but if you prefer as I do not to have your day ruined trying to track the many players and their various agendas, my instinct is that I wouldn’t worry too much about the “fast lane/slow lane” thing because none of the big stakeholders has anything to gain from this outcome.  I’d be much more concerned about who’s disseminating this over-simple explanation and what it is they’re after.

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