By Wyatt Bush
The Internet is a glorious thing.
How else would I be able to seamlessly watch an understandably foul-mouthed man who lost a bet to eat a bull penis or create an orchestral round of five He-Mans singing the 4 Non-Blonde’s “What’s Up.” Maybe in my neighbor Frank’s basement, but I don’t visit there anymore for…reasons.
I cannot imagine the difficulties in living in a country where my Internet browsing abilities are restricted, censored or limited in any sort of fashion.
It is precisely this sort of dystopian future that open Internet advocates and, as of yesterday, President Barack Obama are trying to prevent when they lobby the FCC to enact so-called net neutrality regulations. Nevertheless, before understanding what net neutrality actually entails, one must first familiarize himself with the basics of how the internet works.
The Internet, Amazon and you
One way of thinking about the Internet is almost as a delivery service. When I am at my computer and want to narcissistically reread the excellent story I wrote on CMU’s policies that violate the First Amendment, I enter the web address of the article and a process begins.
Then, my computer essentially contacts the servers CMU Insider uses to store its information and “places an order” for my story. In return, the servers respond and ship data packets that contain the story to my computer. My Internet service provider, in this case Charter, acts as the actual deliveryman who delivers the data packets from the servers to my computer.
In other words, the Internet basically works like ordering junk on Amazon while inebriated, except much faster.
What is net neutrality?
It is this quick delivery speed net neutrality regulations are intended to protect. Advocates believe that all data packets should be treated neutrally/identically and the FCC should force monopolistic broadband companies such as Comcast to ship them as such.
In contrast, the FCC, which is headed by former cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler, has made a proposal to allow cable companies to construct so-called fast lanes and slow lanes, so they may allow discrimination against data packets.
Net neutrality advocates say if Comcast was to deliberately slow or outright block access to websites that criticize its business practices that clearly would not be in the public’s best interest. Additionally, they warn this enables cable providers to act as Mafiosos who can shake down companies like Netflix for larger profits by charging exorbitant amounts for their traffic.
How the media has failed
However, this orthodox view of net neutrality is egregiously incorrect and immensely shortsighted.
For example, Oliver began his segment by saying, “The Internet in its current form is not broken, and the FCC is currently taking steps to fix that.” He contends the FCC’s newly proposed Internet regulations containing information fast and slow lanes threaten the open Internet status quo.
The only problem with this assertion is the Internet has literally never had government enforced net neutrality. So, the real issue is whether the internet can sustain its current non-broken path without a direct federal prohibition on ISPs restricting data flows or charging for internet fast lanes.
For the most part, it is unheard of ISPs to throttle, or deliberately slow, any sort of Internet services or traffic – with one major exception. High traffic streaming services and content providers such as Netflix have already privately reached deals with ISPs such as Comcast or Verizon in order to prevent throttling of their customers’ streams.
This is presented as an unfair arrangement for content providers such as YouTube and Netflix, as they must pay ISPs so that their customers’ viewing experiences are not significantly worsened.
To an outsider, this may seem like a reasonable argument, but there is far more to the picture.
Internet Consumption and why Facebook is trying to screw everyone over
At the consumer level, aside from cellular phone delivery, virtually all Internet access is unmetered. This means that I pay a flat rate for my internet, regardless of how much of it I consume. Typically, this is also coupled with some sort of monthly cap on use.
These caps are set because people cannot be intensively active on their computers 24/7 and must avoid data abuses such as downloading terabytes of cat videos no human could possibly watch every second of the day. Such abusive activities still lock bandwidth and resources on the ISP’s end, so by forcing consumers to put at least minimal thought into their consumption habits, the limited resource of bandwidth is most effectively allocated to all consumers.
Think of the Internet utility like a street’s water main. Normally, there is 40psi of pressure at the tap, and the water utility provider charges for this pressure. However, if every single one of my neighbors and I all opened our taps at the same time, the water pressure would drop to all but zero. The main cannot serve every house at maximum capacity at the same time and it would not be remotely profitable for the water utility company to construct a main in which this would be possible.
Now imagine that one day I constructed an enormous Peyton Manning-themed amusement park that is awe-inspiring and great fun (of course). Among other things, park customers are allowed to throw footballs while commanding others in gaelic, ride bucking bronco wooden roller coasters, wear elaborate mustachioed disguises, and verbally abuse underprivileged children – all while munching on Papa John’s pizza of course. (Yeah, I’ve thought about this for a long time.)
Pretend this park is only profitable if I can get 181,818 people into it every day and I built it in a highly secluded region near the Denver metropolitan area.
The question becomes, whose responsibility is it to construct the parking lots and roads to the park and ensure traffic is directing efficiently in and out of the park constantly all day with no interruptions. Should the cost fall on those who actually want to visit the park either via direct fees on their use of public infrastructure, or indirectly by the city assessing me for the necessary improvements? Or, should I be allowed to force everyone in the Denver metropolitan area to pay those taxes through persuading the local government to increase gasoline and property taxes, regardless of whether they want to visit my amazing park or not.
This is the exact scenario occurring today with ISPs, like Comcast, and data intensive content providers, like Facebook and Netflix.
Data intensive content providers want government-enforced net neutrality because they want to maximize their profits by spreading the costs of increased infrastructure among as many sources as possible. This way they do not need to raise their prices on consumers and can continue to maximize profits.
Netflix, Google (who owns YouTube), Facebook and every other similar content creator supports net neutrality, because under such a system, they keep prices low and force the increased infrastructure costs of their increasingly data-intensive services on all Internet consumers, including those who are not actually using their services.
Seemingly everyone, including many in the mainstream media, has bought this line to the detriment of those who do not consume such services. That’s a problem.
How to actually save the internet
Having the FCC enforce net neutrality does nothing to solve what ailments from which the internet in the United States actually suffers. Repeatedly, studies show Americans are paying higher prices for slower internet service than virtually all modernized nations.
That’s because of a serious lack of competition.
Some argue competition has been stifled due to vertical integration of ISP firms. Others contend that although this has played some part, most of the damage has been done by an unholy alliance between local governments and ISPs.
The most effective way companies can make life harder for their competitors is by stomping on their throats by use of government force and regulations. By using the government to impose significant barriers to entry, ISPs and local governments are able to make significant sums of cash at the expense of everybody else.
Before building new networks, ISPs must first negotiate with local governments for “rights of way” so they are actually able to place wires below/above private and public property. They must also acquire “pole attachment” contracts with public utilities, in order to rent space in things like underground ducts and conduits or poles above-ground.
This creates a problem. Governments and utilities charge ISPs far more than the cost of the aforementioned property, as much as doubling cost of construction. It is these incumbent rights-of-way providers who are the true monopolists. In a horrendous cycle, these providers take exorbitant, massive monetary kickbacks while forcing ISPs to deliver free broadband to government buildings. In return, ISPs typically receive a guaranteed monopoly from the government, so they do not revolt against the prices they are charge.
Local governments in Austin, Kansas City and elsewhere have streamlined and allowed access to “rights-of-way” access for no or minimal cost. Internet services have remained on course with the rest of the world, thanks to increased competition and innovation like Google Fiber.
Ultimately, the way to truly keep the internet open and as the bastion of innovation and cat videos it is today, is by increasing competition and ending local monopolies. Using the FCC to enforce net neutrality regulations does little to address either of these concerns.
Genuine change will come about only when people vocalize their outrage against America’s largely whimpering Internet. Additionally, local governments must realize that although their rights-of-way revenue streams generate large revenues with little cost in the short term, they miss the larger picture. By promoting competition and streamlining increased access to such rights-of-way, they will drive economic growth and in turn their tax base, not to mention the betterment of all its citizens from lower prices.
Right now, the only ones benefitting are monopolistic ISPs and local politicians.
If the FCC, the same incompetent federal body that spent eight years obsessing over a proper punishment for “Nipplegate” and has long pushed for increased government censorship over programs like Spongebob, is granted unprecedented control over the Internet through net neutrality regulations, who knows what damage such an act will do to the long term prospects of the Internet.
I might have to live in a future where I must once again visit Frank’s basement. I don’t want to do that.