Ugh, net neutrality. To say you’re against it is like saying you’re in favor of stomping baby ducks. And I don’t want to be casual about the end of the net-neutrality rules. True, they’ve only been with us since June 2015. But even if the repeal of these rules isn’t consequential on its own, it’s almost surely a signal of worse to come.
And yet. What does it mean to support net neutrality? The popular idea is that it has something to do with, you know, freedom and democracy and all that. The previous head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, explicitly compared net neutrality to free speech. Reliable lefty organizations like the EFF and the ACLU concur. Young people are marching in the streets!
But there’s a ship-of-Theseus problem afoot. Net neutrality is appealing because it channels nostalgia for the chaotic, amateur Internet of 20+ years ago (when that word was still capitalized). But during that time, the internet has been thoroughly commercialized—especially through advertising. Every plank in the principle of net neutrality has been replaced.*
So what does it mean today? I can’t help feeling that net neutrality is mostly a boring argument between two corporate oligopolies—Big Telco and Big Tech—about who’s going to pay for video on the internet.
Video? Rarely mentioned as a fulcrum of this debate. But it’s been chewing up the internet at an alarming speed. (Part of why I chuckle tenderly when some still claim that fonts are a big bandwidth problem.) A recent report from Cisco calculates that 67% of today’s internet is occupied by video traffic, increasing to 80% in 2021.
Part of what net neutrality ensures is that Big Tech can push as much data across the internet as it wants; Big Telco has to deliver it. For cheap traffic—blog posts and news stories—this policy is benign. But for expensive traffic like video, it’s a different story. Like the NFL owners who hornswoggle taxpayers into subsidizing new football stadiums, net neutrality gives Big Tech a special incentive to grow its video-based businesses, because Big Telco must share the costs of carrying all this new traffic.
As usual, the wealth is unevenly distributed. For instance, as of March 2016, Netflix was consuming more than 35% of downstream internet traffic; YouTube was consuming about 17%. So that’s more than half the internet set aside for binge-watchers of Gilmore Girls and cat videos. No surprise that Netflix, YouTube, and other heavy video streamers have been strong proponents of net neutrality: it’s about bigger profit margins, nothing more.
So if I don’t march in the streets for cat videos, please understand. If it were obvious that net neutrality would make the internet better, that would be one thing. But it’s not 1995. Today, picking a side in this debate seems like throwing in with one set of corporate assholes over another. A Hobson’s choice for sure.
That doesn’t mean that freedom and openness can’t remain core virtues of the internet. Perhaps nostalgically, I think they should. But if we entrust Big Tech and Big Telco to preserve those virtues, then we definitely deserve whatever internet we get.
* True, the term “net neutrality” itself only goes back to 2003, credited to law professor Tim Wu. But the underlying principle goes back earlier, and has also arisen in the context of telephone and cable TV networks.