Net neutrality isn’t a big deal: the contrarian’s take

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I’m not sure where I stand on the net neutrality debate at the moment. My gut says net neutrality is a good thing and we should fight for it. But when my gut happens to be leaning in the same direction as an angry mob, I check myself.

Net neutrality is the principle that all network traffic should be treated equally by ISPs like Comcast and Verizon. Netflix movies should load as fast as YouTube movies, which should load as fast as mom-and-pop-streaming-dot-com. When net neutrality ceases to become the law of the land, ISPs might charge consumers extra fees to access the services they want at top speeds. They might program their networks to prioritize the delivery of content created by entities they own (i.e. NBC programming will load faster than ABC for Comcast customers).

I’m no fan of ISPs. (See also: I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and don’t have internet in my apartment). But this isn’t a clear case of good vs. evil, either.

Two articles in particular have started to change my thinking on this.

Ben Thompson

Ben starts by debunking a bit of marketing material from Portugal, which has been used to demonstrate the ills of net neutrality. It appears to show an internet plan in which access to iTunes, Pandora, and Last.fm cost more.

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The rub? Ben explains:

There’s just one problem with the tweet I embedded above: Portugal uses Euros, and the language is Portuguese; the tweet above has dollars and English. The image is completely made-up […] the packages [are] for an additional 10GB/month of data.

He goes on to argue that Title II classification (which the new proposed rules roll back) is overkill, and that regulations that introduce fewer complications (and thus unintended consequences) are better. If my summary sounds dumb to you, give his argument a second chance and read the whole thing.

Tyler Cowen

Tyler’s argument is even easier to recap: based on two recent studies, he thinks the rule change won’t make much of a difference at all.

The first analyzes the stock prices of the big ISPs and Netflix in 2015 when the soon-to-be rolled back net neutrality rules were introduced:

When the court first struck down net neutrality, Netflix shares rose in value. When Obama made it clear he would try to reinstitute net neutrality, Netflix shares fell in value. Again, those patterns reflect the opposite of the usual critical story that Netflix or its customers will be charged a fortune for bandwidth use if net neutrality is removed. Netflix shares have done fine over the last year, even in light of this expected revision to net neutrality policies.

That’s only one example, and it hardly proves that service prioritization will benefit the internet as a whole. Still, we’ve been living with various forms of nonneutrality for some while, and when they’re not framed as such we typically don’t find them so outrageous.

Get his full argument here.

Conclusion

While I think net neutrality is a worthy principle, there’s more than one way to achieve it. I think over-regulation can be over-burdensome, especially in the fast-changing technology landscape of broadband.