I recently read through a long series of comments on Net Neutrality between two people at different ends of the political spectrum — most of them about traffic shaping, which is where a lot of the net neutrality debate has centered over the past year. I wrote a long response about traffic shaping policies, but as I wrote it, I realized that Net Neutrality really shouldn’t be about whether the next startup has to pay Comcast a fee to get the same network access that Netflix gets today. It needs to be about protecting US internet users from harmful practices by monopolistic ISPs. Here’s my thoughts:
Sufficient competition in the ISP space would be awesome. There isn’t sufficient competition in the US. The definition of broadband doesn’t include an explicit definition of latency, but the notion that satellite provides a competitive experience in a world where milliseconds of latency make drastic amounts of difference in user experience is silly. The lack of competition in the US ISP market is absolutely what creates the need for alternative approaches to protecting consumers from what are essentially monopoly providers.
If you don’t accept that for most users, the ISP choice is “Whoever happens to serve where I live”, then of course strict regulation under something like Title II/common carrier status seems unreasonable. Let’s take it as a given that 30% of the country has only one provider which meets the government mandated description of “broadband”, and ignore the traffic shaping arguments for the time being, because that’s not the most important thing out there. Instead, let’s look at some other practices that Title II could regulate, under the notion of ensuring ISPs don’t “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”
- Tracking users by injecting cookies into their HTTP streams at the network level. (EFF on Verizon’s Cookie Injection)
- ISPs blocking content for content reasons (porn filters, for example): As it stands today, there is no reason that ISPs couldn’t decide to implement content quality standards — which may not match those of their captive customers. (UK politicians push for mandatory porn filter — though this isn’t a corporation, it’s clearly demonstrating the potential for competing interests to consider blocking internet content to be a good thing.)
- ISPs breaking the internet by replacing no-such-domain responses with links to their own, ad-filled pages (Verizon’s DNS Assistant)
If there was open competition, all of these would theoretically be fixed by “the market”. But “the market” has left 30% of Americans with only one fixed broadband internet option (BGR story on FCC internet report) - and 67% with two or fewer; a duopoly of two major providers, oftentimes both partaking of the same borderline illegal practices.
Preventing ISPs from blocking content was deemed by the court to be outside the scope of Sec 706 powers for the FCC. The notion that it could then act on these other practices which impact user experience seems unlikely to me. With that in mind, I would say that there are much more important arguments than protecting startups from being unable to compete due to traffic shaping policies: Instead, the importance is the protecting of free speech and communication over the internet, unimpeded by the whims of monopolistic corporations which provide the sole lifeline of so much of the world’s information to so many users.
Traffic shaping and how it shapes up is certainly of personal interest to me, because a chunk of my job is monitoring traffic shaping across a big hunk of the content that flows over the internet. It’s just not the most concerning thing that ISPs are doing in the absence of strict regulation and a true competitive marketplace.