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.

When Free Data Ain’t Free

Wired has a smart take on an idea that sounds good at first: unlimited data usage on your phone for certain apps.

T-Mobile has announced plans that allow access to Twitter, Instagram, and others for free. (Well, included with your monthly charges.)

Virgin Mobile has plans with unlimited access to just Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest for a flat monthly fee.

But like net neutrality, this bundling/unbundling (depending on how you look at it) could stifle innovation:

In [Fred] Wilson’s comparison, zero rating makes apps more like TV by effectively turning specific services into channels. Under the Sprint deal, you get the Facebook channel, the Twitter channel, and so on. To get the full-on open internet—which we used to simply call the internet—you must pay more. For Wilson, this amounts to a kind of front-end discrimination analogous to efforts to undermine net neutrality on the back-end. Some apps or services get preferential treatment, while others are left to wither through lack of equal access.

As Wilson explains, this makes zero rating an existential threat to what he sees as a period of more egalitarian access that allowed the internet economy to flourish. “There was a brief moment in the tech market from 1995 to now where anyone could simply attach a server to the internet and be in business,” Wilson writes in response to a commenter. “That moment is coming to an end.”

Read:
Free Mobile Data Plans Are Going to Crush the Startup Economy {by marcus wohlsen; wired}.

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.