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.

15% of Americans don’t use the internet

I kind of thought it would be higher. What do you think?

From Pew:

The size of this group has changed little over the past three years, despite recent government and social service programs to encourage internet adoption. But that 15% figure is substantially lower than in 2000, when Pew Research first began to study the social impact of technology. That year, nearly half (48%) of American adults did not use the internet.

It breaks down more or less as you’d expect:

Seniors are the group most likely to say they never go online. About four-in-ten adults ages 65 and older (39%) do not use the internet, compared with only 3% of 18- to 29-year-olds. Household income and education are also indicators of a person’s likelihood to be offline. A third of adults with less than a high school education do not use the internet, but that share falls as the level of educational attainment increases. Adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year are roughly eight times more likely than the most affluent adults to not use the internet.

I’m OK with the old people getting left behind, they’re going to move beyond soon anyway. But more really needs to be done to get internet access to low-income families.

Philadelphia councilpeople recently wrote a letter {philly mag} to two Comcast execs, as part of the public push to get more concessions from Comcast (which is now negotiating for a new 15-year franchising agreement, which is basically over the rights of Comcast to dig up the streets to put stuff underground).

From the letter:

Far too many Philadelphians still lack access to this option, with broadband penetration in the City of Philadelphia falling stubbornly behind our counterparts in other major cities. The recent announcement of the expansion of Internet Essentials is a positive first step. But Comcast can further open the door of opportunity for thousands of low-income individuals and families, as well as senior citizens and persons with disabilities. Expanding Internet Essentials to seniors on a pilot basis in Florida is a commendable step but why not pilot the same program in your home city? What digital divide issues exist in West Palm Beach that haven’t existed here in Philadelphia over the last two decades?

Well said.

Friday Link List: Tech & Media Edition

1. The App I Used to Break into My Neighbor’s Home {wired}

When I broke into my neighbor’s home earlier this week, I didn’t use any cat burglar skills. I don’t know how to pick locks. I’m not even sure how to use a crowbar. It turns out all anyone needs to invade a friend’s apartment is an off switch for their conscience and an iPhone.

2. Behind Comcast’s Truthy Ad Campaign for Net Neutrality {washington post}

In an ongoing ad campaign, Comcast touts that it’s the only internet service provider (or ISP) legally bound by “full” net neutrality and that the company wants to expand that commitment to even more people. This sounds great for consumers; it’s the kind of thing that might convince skeptical regulators to give Comcast the benefit of the doubt. But the advertising claims come with some big, unstated caveats that could be confusing to consumers who already find the net neutrality debate a jumble of jargon and rhetoric.

3. Riding the Juggernaut That Left Print Behind {david carr/new york times}

I am a faithful reader of The Journal’s and The Times’s print edition. Both are built on a wonderful technology for discovering and consuming news, and a large part of their profits still reside in that daily artifact. But when big things happen, I stayed glued to the web, at The Times and other great news sites.

Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.

But once a sponge is at capacity, new information can only replace old information. Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)

4. Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy {new yorker}

Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief. “Sharing” is, in fact, the opposite of what we do: like one of Woolf’s hostesses, we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.

Friday Link List

1. Comcast’s Real Repairman {new york times}

Thorough overview of Comcast chief David Cohen. Gave me a much better insight into the Time Warner proposal.

Love this part:

Mr. Cohen, who has remained close to Mr. Bradley, smiles when reminded of the long-ago campaign. “That’s just my view of the world,” he says. “Always be more prepared than anyone else, because there’s a huge advantage to knowing everything that might be asked and having given at least some thought to the answer.”

2. TEDification v. Edification {design observer}

Smart, long take on the explosion of the TED talk. Among my favorite parts:

TED lays out the right path: popular access to advanced knowledge about big subjects. But the project has to be redirected as a process of enquiry rather than epiphany, requiring not only passion but also patience. Consider that one of the fundamental challenges for design is to confront what Horst Rittel described four decades ago as the wicked problem. For wicked problems there are no real solutions, only makeshift and contingent negotiation. “Dealing with wicked problems,” Rittel conceded, “is always political.” [21] The incessant waves of eighteen minutes of epiphanic techno-complexity are working to deny complexity — to deny the wickedness of wicked problems, to detach us from their political reality, to deny our limited ability to solve them and to encourage hubris where we need humility.

3. Google’s Road Map to Global Domination {new york times}

Google v. the world.

A Frenchman who has lived half his 49 years in the United States, [Luc] Vincent was never in the Marines. But he is a leader in a new great game: the Internet land grab, which can be reduced to three key battles over three key conceptual territories. What came first, conquered by Google’s superior search algorithms. Who was next, and Facebook was the victor. But where, arguably the biggest prize of all, has yet to be completely won.

Where-type questions — the kind that result in a little map popping up on the search-results page — account for some 20 percent of all Google queries done from the desktop. But ultimately more important by far is location-awareness, the sort of geographical information that our phones and other mobile devices already require in order to function. In the future, such location-awareness will be built into more than just phones. All of our stuff will know where it is — and that awareness will imbue the real world with some of the power of the virtual. Your house keys will tell you that they’re still on your desk at work. Your tools will remind you that they were lent to a friend. And your car will be able to drive itself on an errand to retrieve both your keys and your tools.