Net-neutrality neutrality

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.