As you may know from reading this site over the years, I am a fervent supporter of ‘net neutrality’ regulations. In fact, I think that the principles of net neutrality should be codified in federal law—but I’ll take a firmly established Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation as a fine stop-gap.
To oversimplify the issue, net neutrality means that the various Internet service providers (‘ISPs’ like Verizon, Comcast, Cox Cable, etc.) should not be permitted to discriminate between different bits of data on their network. The service providers should be neutral. From the foundation of the Internet, each bit and byte moving over the network has been treated equally—whether it be part of an email, a web site, an image, a newsgroup posting, an instant message, a video, a song, a piece of software, etc. Some service providers, however, want to have the ability to give preferential treatment (for their own business purposes) to some bits and bytes over others.
Many justify this on the basis of network strain. Videos, for example, tax the Internet infrastructure much worse than a regular web site, so ISPs might want to limit the usage of video on the web. There is a fair case to be made for this kind of discrimination, to a point, however there are several documented cases of ISPs—many of which are also phone companies—attempting to block traffic for Voice Over IP (VOIP) companies like Vonage that compete with their own land-line phone services. If we give ISPs the authority to decide which traffic moves over their networks, we run a very real risk of turning the Internet into a giant toll road that benefits ISPs at our expense.
Many free market conservatives, with whom I usually agree, scoff at the idea of the federal government decreeing that ISPs must be neutral about data on their networks. After all, they are businesses and they have the right to decide what people can and cannot use their systems for. If we, the consumers, don’t like it then we can simply take our money to a competitor that provides the particular service we want. Others argue that the last thing the federal government should be doing is regulating Internet services.
I sympathize with both of these arguments.
First and foremost though, we can dispense with the argument that it’s none of the government’s business to enact regulation on Internet service providers. While it is difficult to quantify exact numbers, it is undeniable that a significant amount of data traffic across ISP networks crosses state and/or national lines it its journey. Google is based in California, for example, and has data centers all over the world. When I search Google I am transferring data (including paid advertising) between Virginia, some data center in some other state, and Google central in California. This kind of web traffic—indeed, the vast majority of web traffic—is clearly international or interstate commerce. The regulation of international and interstate commerce is one of the few explicitly listed powers granted to the federal government under the United States Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3). Net neutrality regulation would not be some sort of extra-constitutional power grab (like, say, buying General Motors was).
Of course, that the federal government has the authority to regulate something does not necessarily mean that they should. All else being equal, I would prefer to let the free market do its business unfettered. In this case, however, Internet access is more like an Interstate Highway or an electricity network than it is like your normal business. The Internet is an infrastructure conduit that allows other business to get done. The powerhouses of the information economy aren’t Verizon and Comcast, they’re Google and Facebook (among others). Verizon and Comcast provide you a pipe to connect to the network where the real cool stuff is happening. Granting Verizon and Comcast the right to control, limit, and redirect your online access at-will would harm the information economy much more than it would help it.
You wouldn’t want to let gas station companies decide when you could and when you couldn’t get off the Interstate, would you? You wouldn’t want power companies telling you what you can and can’t use their electricity for, would you? Their decisions would serve themselves, not you.
Further, in many places customers have access only to one or two ISPs. At my apartment, I have two options: Verizon and Cox Cable. At the new house we’ve bought, it’s two options: Verizon and Comcast. At my old apartment it was two: Verizon and Cox Cable. In some parts of the country, only one broadband Internet service provider is available. In others, none are available at all (which is a problem all its own).
The point here is that, had net neutrality not been in place (through voluntary adherence and technical design) since the beginning of the web, Google probably wouldn’t exist. Verizon and its corporate predecessors would have blocked Google, or slowed down access to it, saying that they wanted you to use their particular Verizon search engine service instead. In some parts of the country, you would have had no competitive service to switch to if you wanted to be able to use Google properly. In other markets you might have had one competitor, and that one competitor (maybe Cox Cable) would likely have done the same thing in favor of their own Cox search engine service.
All-in-all, net neutrality is what made the web what it is. Google, Ebay, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other companies that rely on the web exist because ISPs have traditionally not acted as gatekeepers, but conduits. As more and more ISPs try to shift into a more interventionist role, with documented cases of them doing so, it’s long past time for the FCC and Congress to specifically protect the principles of net neutrality upon which the Internet is built.
I applaud the FCC for moving forward with this very important rule. I strongly encourage the Democratic majorities in Congress and President Barack Obama (D) to work toward enacting net neutrality legislation. I also encourage Republicans in Congress to seriously consider supporting net neutrality and working to protect the Internet free market that has become so integral to our economy.
The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Web.com.