If you’re wondering what this Net Neutrality thing that people are going bonkers over is about, don’t bother. It’s mostly a gaslighting campaign to convince people that a 2-year-old regulation is somehow essential to the health of the Internet. It’s not. I’m in the business, and I figured it would be a ho-hum story only nerds would care about. I forgot the media/entertainment companies are on the content provider (Netflix) side, and they’re very good at running propaganda campaigns, so it blew up more than I expected. If you really want to know more, keep reading…
Net Neutrality (NN) was basically Obamacare for the Internet. It was an idealistic (sort of) attempt to provide a product (Internet data) free (as in free speech, not free beer) and unrestricted for people, without much consideration for who would pay for it or whether it was sustainable in the long run. So just as Obamacare got upside down fast, NN was bound to do the same over time. Here’s why.
The bottom line is that data coming to your computer or device, whether it’s a tiny email or a huge movie stream, is electrons, radio waves, or light pulses being pushed from the source to you. That pushing requires energy, so it costs money. It costs a very, very small amount per chunk, but we keep using more chunks, so the cost of “using the Internet” has stayed about the same or risen over the years.
When I first got online, most of the data was plain text, which is tiny. The whole Bible in plain text is something like four megabytes. Then the web brought us formatted text with fonts and colors, which was several times larger. Then we started adding pictures, which are exponentially larger. Then audio, even larger, then video, much larger yet. Video resolution keeps getting better, requiring more and more data. The bottom line is that I probably use more data in a day now than I did in a year in 1997.
Video uses so much more than anything else normal users do, and there’s so much demand for it with people running Netflix all day long like TV, that it’s dwarfing everything else and growing. NN said the people who move the data from one place to another couldn’t treat that video data (or any kind) differently from other data. They couldn’t make it second-class, so that other data like email could get through first if there was a bottleneck. They couldn’t sell you a cheaper no-streaming package or a light-streaming package, that would let you move all the data you liked except for streaming content like movies. Everything had to be treated the same, no matter how much some data bloated and drove up costs for the data movers.
Ending NN — going back to the olden days of 2014 — means the data movers have options to deal with the glut, and they can give their customers more options besides more or less total data. Options are good.
There are two objections to ending it. The first is that most people get their high-speed broadband Internet from one of four big companies, thanks to consolidation during the Bush/Obama years. (Around here you don’t have to; call Adams.) Many people only have one of these companies to choose from. So the concern is that if your only choice is Comcast, Comcast will start charging you $25/month to use Netflix, $5/month to use YouTube, $10/month to use NFL.com, etc., and end up charging you a lot more than you pay now. But if you’re stuck with one provider, they can already charge you more, they just have to do it on the total package, not on individual types or sources of data. Stuck is stuck.
So that’s not much of an objection, since the same thing that stops them from charging you $300/month for Internet now will stop them from getting carried away with specific prices: you do have other options. You can get your Internet through your phone, or by satellite, or use the free Internet at the library. None of those give you a big, cheap, fast pipe for watching loads of movies, but that’s kinda the point: there’s no civil right to watch HD movies all day on the cheap. If you want the best, the best usually costs extra.
The other objection comes from free speech advocates, and I have more sympathy for it. Their concern is that these four companies could start blocking access to certain sites or certain types of information. The left-wingers think right-wingers will buy them and block left-wing sites, and the right-wingers think the opposite. That is possible. I don’t think it’s a serious threat, though, because the companies that move data have never cared about its content, only about how much of it there is. Because there’s a ton, and when your job is to make sure it gets from one place to another as fast as possible, you really don’t have time to be opening up packets to see what’s in them. They don’t care whether you’re watching Snow White or an NFL game or Japanese tentacle porn; they only care how much data it uses.
That could change, but they never did what’s feared before 2015, so I’ll worry about that problem if it develops. If the fact that there are only four companies dominating an industry is a problem, the answer to that is anti-trust law and breaking them up anyway, not NN. I don’t like the fact that all US media is owned by six companies either, but the answer to that would be breaking them up and encouraging competition again, not having the government tell them what they can and can’t report.
Also, there are already some very large companies that are blocking access to content they deem unacceptable: Google (YouTube), Facebook, Twitter, and other search/social media companies. They are doing it now, and they’ve openly stated their intent to step it up. They can’t totally block access to a site, but they can make it invisible to the vast majority of users who find everything through them. Net Neutrality didn’t affect them one way or the other. So I’ll worry about the threat to free speech that’s in my face right now, rather than the one that might emerge someday.