Net Neutrality: What is it, and why should you care?

Net Neutrality is described in different ways. In Tim Wu’s Network Neutrality FAQ, it is described in purely economic terms:“a neutral network should be expected to deliver the most to a nation and the world economically, by serving as an innovation platform, and socially, by facilitating the widest variety of interactions between people.“

In “No Tolls on the Internet”, Lessig and McChesney describe Neutrality, or rather its absence, in rather more moralistic terms. Internet service providers, or carriers, should not be “extorting protection money” from services who their users want to communicate.(These authors, by the way, are not in conflict with each other; Lessig and McChesney quote Wu as describing carriers as having “the Tony Soprano business model”).

The concept, then, is that if you sign up for internet service, you are signing up with the freedom to communicate with whom you please, you are not granting your service provider the license to demand baksheesh from anyone who wants to offer you a service. As Wu notes, this is an expansion of the concept of a ‘common carrier’ from the transport sector.

One might well question whether a technology can be neutral at all. Balabian argues that the image of technology as a neutral tool is one at least in part promoted in order to hide the interests of those who have produced the technology. However, at least some technologies can be neutral: most obviously, those designed to be. A (very simple) technology of this kind would be  the method of drawing straws.  Another would be weights and measures. Even vested interests benefit if some technologies are neutral.

Getting back to telecommunications, Almon Strowger; reputedly devised the first successful automated telephone exchange (video) because suspected the local manual switchboard operators of having been bribed to favour his competition. Strowger’s switch was neutral in a useful sense. It wasn’t neutral in every sense (for example, towards those switchboard operators which it put out of work) but it provided a useful guarantee. And it did so because the technology of the time wasn’t capable of being biased in this way.  But since it now is, we are faced with the question of whether we need to enforce this form of neutrality in law.

But when is it necessary to do so? If you sign up for internet service, you are signing up to the terms and conditions offered to you. So why is it not sufficient for the free market to sort this out? If people are willing to sign up to terms under which the carrier does act as a gatekeeper, should government intervene to prevent them?

This is certainly an argument made by the carriers. Another is that, given the extraordinary growth of internet traffic due to the public’s consumption, to finance the necessary investment required it is necessary to charge internet companies, as well as their users (eg, Litan here)

One problem with the free market argument is that many wireline internet providers have a monopoly. It is more difficult to say that users have accepted the terms, when they have to take them or have no access. However, this argument makes it more problematic to argue that Net Neutrality should be applied to mobile carriers, where there usually is competition.

One argument is that discrimination can be covert, or at least, not announced. To take the Strowger example, the operator did not have to say “my brother in law is a much better undertaker, wouldn’t you like to call him instead?” Rather, she could simply connect the caller to here preferred undertaker, as by mistake. If users are unaware how much discrimination is occurring, how can the market remove it?

Litan’s argument seems confused to me. It assumes that Net Neutrality is the same as requiring flat fee access, which it isn’t. It also assumes incorrectly that ‘service’ companies such as google don’t pay for internet access. (A full discussion here would require a description of peering, but I don’t have space).

Other difficulties with Net Neutrality are: Why does it only apply to carriers? The modern internet has many more intermediaries above the level of the carriers of raw bits. Google, Facebook, Skype, etc arguably have exactly the same opportunity to discriminate, if not more so. Indeed, Google has a severe conflict of interest, because its value to users lies in providing unbiased search results, but its revenue comes from paid advertisements.  However, Morozov argues that it is pushing the net neutrality concept too far to apply it to the likes of Google and Apple, that although they provide messaging services, they are too different for the old rules to be applied. It may be that we have to  move from discussing whether their actions are neutral, to whether we have influence over them commensurate with their influence over us. Or maybe we have to devise some new guarantee that they ought to provide.

Nevertheless, the original Net Neutrality is still a live issue today. Just as it is ‘always profitable to add chalk to flour’, there will always be pressure to weaken the rules. So that’s why you should care.

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