I have a ton of requests that have come my way for me to share my complete take on “net neutrality.” This is because the Federal Communications Commission is having a vote this December 14 about it. Many people have done a fine job sharing the term around while saying it is under assault and the fate of the Internet is at stake. Significantly fewer people actually understand what is really going on. Since I'm widely seen as an intelligent thought leader on these kinds of issues, people look to me to know the truth and I've sort of been avoiding writing an article on net neutrality for years, including ignoring the issue on this site when it came to prominence in 2015.
Why? It's extremely complicated, and to properly understand net neutrality, you need to know the history of the Internet and the technical details of how it works. I am going to do just that, and then give you my analysis on the net neutrality issue at hand, the scare-tactics people use, and why those scare tactics are effective. In the process of doing that, I will apply some much-needed CRITICAL THINKING to the discussion, which is sorely lacking right now.
If I am factually incorrect on anything I am writing in this article, please let me know in the comments section. I will reward you for correcting me for misstatements in this article, and almost every other article on this site, through KoopaTV's Corrections Corner feature. (More on that in the italicised footer at the bottom of this article.)
With that said, I will start my complete primer. Hover your mouse over each heading to figure out the url anchor, so you can hyperlink to specific article sections if you desire. Also, check out the comments section, since that has pretty good discussion and elaboration of some points from this article. This article has been updated as of December 14.
The Definition of Net Neutrality
As defined by Wiktionary:
“A principle proposed for user-access networks participating in the Internet that advocates no restrictions by ISPs [Internet Service Providers] or government on the content, sites, platforms, equipment, and modes of communication over the network.”
It's important to note that net neutrality is a principle. An objective. A mission. There is no “they are repealing net neutrality!” There isn't a net neutrality law. It's a regulatory principle, both on a self-regulation basis and from a governmental regulation basis.
Put in my own words, net neutrality means that no one interferes in the relationship between you and Internet content besides you and the content creator. That means that your relationship with KoopaTV is affected by you, and by us, but not the government or the people technically giving you Internet access.
The Federal Communications Commission, throughout its history, has adhered to the net neutrality principle without resorting to what is called Title II, which I will talk more about as the article progresses.
This article's stance is against Title II, not against net neutrality. It is important to not equate the two.
Relevant History of the Internet
I'm going to just talk about how people access the World Wide Web, since how the Internet was researched and developed isn't really important to understanding net neutrality. Just know that they invented something called “packet-switching” which is how data is transferred across the networks. It means you split data into little packets, shoot them out, and they go through different paths and your data is re-assembled at the end. This takes longer for bigger files, which were limited in number in the early days because no one is going to put out something that no one can process.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, you could do a lot of things on the Internet like write blogs (hence KoopaTV still being akin to a late 1990s fan site) and even do e-commerce. Download speeds and bandwidth were garbage and most people accessed the Internet through their landline phones (dial-up). Web content was mostly through “walled gardens”. In the mid-2000s, you start getting wider-spread higher-speed Internet at cheaper prices, along with computers having much better working memory, so computers could handle more advanced forms of media than text and Flash. User-generated content grew big.
From 2015 to now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpreted the Communications Act of 1934 to reclassify ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T as “common carriers.” This is under Title II (telecommunications services, stricter regulation) compared to what it was before, Title I (information services, lighter regulation). This is after the FCC's earlier attempts to impose net neutrality principles on ISPs through regulation were rebuffed in court cases such as Comcast Corp. v. FCC (2010) and Verizon Communications Inc. v. FCC (2014), which stated that the FCC didn't have the proper authority granted to it by Congress to do what it wanted, and that ISPs have freedom of speech too.
Here's how Comcast's 2016 Annual Report describes what happened:
“In 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband Internet access service as a “telecommunications service” subject to new open Internet regulations and certain common carrier regulations under Title II of the Communications Act, including requirements that charges and practices of ISPs for and in connection with broadband Internet access service be just, reasonable and not unjustly or unreasonably discriminatory. However, the FCC refrained from implementing a number of utility-style regulations that might otherwise apply under Title II, such as rate regulation, tariffs and unbundling requirements.I'd note that just because Comcast is listing all of the stuff they now cannot do, does not mean they planned to do them. They just have to list that stuff in the annual report as something for investors to consider. (Curiously, Verizon omits discussion of this entirely.)
The new open Internet regulations bar ISPs from blocking access to lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices; prohibit ISPs from impairing or degrading lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications or services, or impairing or degrading the use of non-harmful devices; prohibit ISPs from favoring lawful traffic from one provider of Internet content, applications or services (called an “edge provider”) over lawful traffic of another edge provider in exchange for consideration (“paid prioritization”); establish a new “general conduct standard” that prohibits ISPs from unreasonably interfering with or unreasonably disadvantaging the ability of consumers to select, access and use the lawful Internet content, applications, services or devices of their choosing or of edge providers to make lawful content, applications, services or devices available to consumers; and require ISPs to disclose information regarding network management, performance and commercial terms of the service. In addition, interconnection arrangements, which govern how Internet traffic is exchanged between high-speed Internet networks and provide direct, dedicated interconnection capacity to edge providers, are now subject to FCC oversight under Title II of the Communications Act. All of these regulations are subject to FCC enforcement and could give rise to third-party claims for damages or equitable relief. These requirements could adversely affect our business, although the extent to which they do so will depend upon the manner in which the FCC interprets and enforces them.”
Now, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai wishes to return the Internet to be classified as an information service, the Title I.
What Role Does Everyone Play?
The Internet is a massive, complicated affair. There are a lot of moving parts going on, so I will try to explain everything.
I'll be using this diagram I drew to give you a visual picture of how the Internet works via an analogy that I call The Intertent:
|Welcome to “The Intertent”! Only 5 gold per month for unlimited access to awesome booths like Goomflix, BooTube, faceBOMB!, and KoopaTV.org! |
Just pay the Shy Guys who are in charge of maintenance and construction of the whole tent.
The analogy is of the traditional state of the Internet. That is how it existed prior to 2015.
Your Role as a Consumer
You choose what the best way for you to access the Internet is, and then you can go and access the content you want. Your choices and tastes, collectively with other people, make up the market of what's desirable that everyone else works to satisfy. Consumers hold a lot of power, because without a willing audience, nothing else matters.
In the diagram, consumers represent the Koopa Troopas, except for that one guy in the bottom-left corner who is choosing to read a book instead. Consumers pay ISPs and content providers money to be able to access the Internet and content.
The Role of ISPs
Internet Service Providers are “the last mile” for customers to be able to connect to a network to access the Internet. They built out, and continue to build out, the physical infrastructure to make it happen. They also work with content delivery networks to get you access to high-trafficked web content faster. They historically have been able to manage their networks to make sure that there is enough bandwidth to go around and packets go to where they need to go. Customers pay them to be allowed into the Internet. ISPs have service-level agreements that mean they need to maintain a certain amount of uptime and speed to their customers for an expected amount of traffic, and they are responsible for the dramatic increase in Internet speeds over the past few decades.
I remember back a decade and a half ago, I was constantly checking the Local Area Connection Status to see if my computer was actually sending and receiving any packets.
|Thanks to ISPs investing many billions of dollars into infrastructure, I haven't checked this screen out in a long time.|
The Internet quality has gotten much better.
ISPs are incentivised into having a free and open Internet, because the value of the ISP's product is directly tied to the value of the content people are able to access on the Internet. If the Internet isn't worth having, then people wouldn't pay ISPs for it. That's why cable companies, many of which are also ISPs, are suffering by the cable cord-cutting movement, since people don't see the value of a cable subscription anymore because they think cable TV sucks.
In the diagram, the ISPs are represented by the Shy Guys. You need to pay them money every time period to be able to access the content within the Intertent. It may not look like it, but each Shy Guy works for a different company and they are competing against one another. If you visited that tent a decade ago, it was a lot smaller and the quality was a lot worse, with the tent sometimes collapsing on itself due to poor construction. Thanks to people paying the Shy Guys, they've steadily built the tent to be sturdier and have better throughput.
One other analogical bit: Despite each Shy Guy having their own business and network, they all connect consumers to the common area, which functions as a network of networks. That's how the Internet works. Everyone benefits from those network effects, being consumers, content creators, and ISPs. You could consider it co-opetition.
The Role of Internet Content Creators
As mentioned in the history section, now everyone who uses the Internet has the chance to be a content creator with user-generated content, but this is talking about the Googles, Netflixes, and KoopaTVs of the world. The really big guys who get most of the Internet's traffic, and they are alternatively known as “edge providers.” They tend to work with content delivery networks, who work with ISPs.
(KoopaTV doesn't have a special arrangement with anyone, though.)
|Netflix and YouTube are America's Biggest Traffic Hogs, so those content providers have special arrangements to service their customers.|
They probably have updated this since September 2014, but I don't have Statista access anymore.
In the diagram, the content creators are represented by the guys inside the tent. They offer many wonderful services, information, and entertainment to people, but they are only made possible by the tent being there. Without the tent, they wouldn't exist. Therefore, in terms of the value chain, the guys running the Intertent always get to claim something in allowing the services to be delivered.
Content creators sometimes charge their users a subscription fee, or they're like KoopaTV.org and run a net negative balance just because we're so kind.
The tent is able to take an infinite amount of traffic within it, but if it gets too full, then it's going to be a very unpleasant experience for customers, which will turn them away in frustration from content providers. It's the role of the ISPs to manage that, and content creators benefit from those services, should ISPs be allowed to do that.
(Note that content creators have these things called “servers” that can take a certain amount of networked traffic depending on how many they have. There are a lot of factors that go into web content's speed and traffic and things.)
The Role of the Government
The federal government doesn't do much. The Internet is global. No one country gets to claim it. There is no central authority. There's ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) which handles namespaces on the Internet (like KoopaTV.org), but they're not really a governing body that makes big decisions, just a coordinating body. Sometimes, government will work with the ISPs to gather evidence of illegal activity if a terrorist is using the Internet, or something.
Local governments are wholly responsible for the lack of competition in many areas of the country between ISPs, which is a major contributor to the prevention of a free market between ISPs in a pre-2015 world. They get kickbacks from the ISP for preventing competition for them, because it is much easier to exist as a monopoly than as a competitor. That contributes to some bad behaviour on the part of ISPs, because if people don't have another Shy Guy to switch to when their current one is screwing them over, then their only choice is whether or not the Internet is worth dealing with the ISP.
Otherwise, notice how the government isn't in the diagram.
With Title II regulation imposing net neutrality, the role of government changes. The government is now able to control how much ISPs can charge private transactions, and they can control the amount of investment and into what the ISPs can do. The government can single-handedly stunt innovation, as well as commit grave privacy violations. More into that in the sections below.
What Could Happen Without Net Neutrality via Title II regulation
Were you around the Internet before 2015?
That is what would happen. It was nice.
The FCC is returning to the regulatory model (light-touch) that existed prior to 2015, plus stronger transparency regulations that ISPs will have to abide by. That is according to the FCC itself. I think the FCC is a better source for what its own plans are than people who can't remember the world from two years ago that are creating FAKE NEWS to scare people (see two sections below).
You are going to go back to what was there before, which also means the Federal Trade Commission can regulate bad ISPs who commit privacy violations, and enforce anti-trust laws that regulate anti-competitive behaviour will apply. (Currently, the FTC doesn't have jurisdiction like they did before 2015.) ISPs will be required to disclose what they are doing with greater transparency than before. The Internet will be as open and generative as it was in 2015, if not more.
Since all of the stuff people enjoy on the Internet was around BEFORE Title II regulations were enacted in 2015 (with the lone exception of KoopaTV having its .org top-level domain), I don't think that's a bad thing to go back to.
The December 14 Vote(This section is new as of December 14, 2017.)
The Federal Communications Commission has voted, 3-2, to return the Internet back to Title I classification, and take off the chains of Title II regulation. They have also voted on greater transparency rules on the part of the ISPs, which will have to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget. This also returns regulatory enforcement to the Federal Trade Commission, which is much better able to bring action against bad actors than the FCC was.
They did this in the face of an overwhelming (and mostly fake) Internet mob, along with actual things such as bomb threats.
What Could Happen With Net Neutrality via Title II regulation
Let's see what is already happening.
Investment in Internet infrastructure has fallen by over 5% (according to the FCC) since 2015. That's unheard of. This will only further the digital divide between people who have Internet and those that do not. The companies that are most affected by regulations are the smaller ones that do not have the resources to comply with them, which drive them out of the market. That is a truism for literally every industry.
Right now, regulation is scaring away companies from trying to innovate their customer servicing plans, their infrastructure mix, and other kinds of telecommunication efforts due to the lack of certainty of Title II. The government has not chosen many of the heavy-handed options available to it under Title II YET, but the uncertainty surrounding that area is depressing innovation and will continue to if Title II is around. And, of course, if Title II's insidious regulations are in effect, you can say good-bye to innovation. For an example, check out how the FCC's crushing regulations stunted the birth of FM Radio.
People are afraid of ISPs, a varied group of hundreds of companies both large and small, controlling every aspect of the Internet. They would rather give ALL control over the Internet, which is what Title II regulation does, to the federal government. While there exists ISP monopolies in some parts of the country, many populated municipalities do have choice. Putting the government in charge removes that choice.
While ISPs are bound by what the market demands, the government is under no such pressure. As we've observed on KoopaTV for years, the government is incredibly political, unresponsive to people's needs, and a threat to privacy. The government is the ultimate monopoly — of force. You can't escape them. Why give them more power?
Put another way, would you rather have your Internet access controlled by the free market which serves all of the other products you enjoy, or would you rather have it controlled by the whims of President Donald John Trump, or in an alternate universe, a President Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman that would have regulated videogames out of existence? Remember, Title II is not net neutrality. Net neutrality wants no restriction by businesses or government. Title II allows the government to regulate the Internet, and it does not mandate the government acts under net neutrality principles.
Remember, Title II is not equivalent to net neutrality. When they created Title II over 70 years ago, the legislators weren't thinking, “this will enable net neutrality.” No, they were thinking, “this will allow the government to control phone companies.”
Using Title II for net neutrality is a square peg in a circular hole. It is a power play. That statement is not a scare tactic on my part. It's a fact. There were net neutrality principles in place throughout the Internet's history long before 2015. There was no regulatory need to jump to Title II. No cataclysmic event.
Edge Provider Power Play — Hypocrisy, and Going on NOW!
(This section is new as of December 8, 2017.)
People herald Silicon Valley Internet companies like Google as champions of net neutrality. After all, they lead the charge in lobbying the government with millions for net neutrality regulations, and many people believe that Google can do no evil.
Well, why doesn't Google practice net neutrality principles? They just pulled YouTube off of Amazon devices because of a business disagreement with them. Why is this okay, but Comcast and Netflix having business disagreements (due to a third party) that temporarily affect performance (but still not outright blocking content) not okay?
The reason Google does this is because they DON'T truly support net neutrality. They support Title II regulations, which are not equivalent to net neutrality, which are targeted towards ISPs, not content providers like Google. As you can see from the Intertent art, the Internet is an ecosystem filled with different sources of power. Title II regulation completely kills the power of the ISPs, leaving content providers (and the government) to fill the vacuum of power. It's a power grab that destroys the checks-and-balances of the Internet. If content providers get all the power and aren't regulated, while ISPs are regulated to a nonexistent force, then who is checking and balancing the content providers that can BLOCK and THROTTLE content just as easily as the ISPs could?
Remember: The Internet is under Title II regulations RIGHT NOW. Title II regulations did not just stop Google from blocking YouTube from Amazon devices. That's because Title II regulations do NOT make net neutrality happen. Net neutrality is a set of principles... principles that Google does not follow.
Scare-Tactics You May See
People are saying that, all of a sudden, the Internet will end as we know it if Title II regulations are removed. For a good fact sheet put out by the Federal Communications Commission addressing many of the scare tactics, click here.
There are some memes going around of Internet Service Providers charging you a la carte for access to specific content providers, presumably to the detriment of smaller guys. First of all, that didn't happen before 2015, so it's not likely. Second of all, special pricing packages could end up benefiting a lot of people who still only use the Internet to just check their e-mail and a few other low-power activities. Third, price increases as a result of ISP to content provider negotiations wouldn't flow from ISP-to-consumer. They would flow from ISP-to-content provider, who would probably choose to raise their subscription rates to the consumer. That is a world of difference in terms of how the user is charged (blanket vs. usage). This would be like any other cost of business passed on to the consumer, including taxes, costs of good sold, general & administrative, etc. It would better reflect the true market costs, because right now, the rest of the Internet is subsidising Netflix, even people who don't use Netflix. (See the biggest traffic hogs chart above.) It's a great business model for Silicon Valley, who is behind much of the opposition to the FCC, but it is anti-consumer and stinks of tragedy of the commons. What is pro-consumer is to charge people (and corporations) for what they actually use.
All of this talk about THROTTLING and BLOCKING content wouldn't happen in the light-touch regulatory environment the FCC is saying it will return to, because of the greater transparency rules that enable market forces to correct poor behaviour. Plus, it goes against the ISP's financial incentive, because, remember, the ISPs benefit from a vibrant open Internet since access to that IS their product. Additionally, putting people on “slow lanes” doesn't make something undownloadable, if that were to ever happen. It's not normal and worse. It's better and normal, just like any other good-better-best decision you can currently make on the free market. No one complains about those. Some media types WANT higher prioritisation, like streaming a video compared to loading text. That's basic network management, and the Title II regulations as implemented even allow a limited degree of that.
Folks think that, while content they want will be THROTTLED, content the ISP wants you to see (like their own media brands) will be just fine, effectively creating the walled garden model that the market has rejected a long time ago. A free market will not accept a previously-rejected model if that happened. People are afraid as if the ISPs will have all of the market power. No. They will not. They never have. The market forces against them easily overpower their negotiating strength.
You might see people trotting out a list of bad things some ISPs have done over the years as proof that we need Title II regulations. The fact that those lists exist is proof that the light-touch regulatory framework we had prior to 2015 WORKED, because when ISPs experimented by doing some bad stuff, the story ends in them no longer being able to do it for one reason or another, whether by FCC action, FTC action, or market demand. With the FCC's transparency rules that they will articulate when Title II is removed, this beating-back of bad behaviour will work even more efficiently.
Plus, for all of the many ISPs out there, and for as long as the ISPs have been around, it's a pretty small list of offenses. The biggest problem the ISPs have is their crappy customer service, which is a business model supported by their local monopoly status. Of course, let's not act like ISPs are all one monolithic group, either.
Why do these scare tactics work so well? People have these biases:
- Internet content companies are a lot more closer and impactful to people's lives than the relationship between people and their ISPs, so they pay a lot more attention to what they say than what the ISPs would say. On that note, ISP companies in general have awful customer service when they are in the business of providing services to people. Internet content companies also have awful or nonexistent customer service, but it's less likely people will have to interface with them so they have a better starting opinion.
- Since people interact with Silicon Valley companies every day and try to avoid dealing with their ISP, they tend to only understand what they personally experience. Content is viewed as an entertaining luxury, and ISPs are a not-well-understood necessary evil that just exist to bill them every month.
- The term “net neutrality” was very nicely termed. Who wants to be against “neutrality”? Similarly, “discrimination” (treating people differently depending on their circumstances) is seen as a horrible thing thanks to how society frames the terms. This is how ObamaCare was sold to people — no more discrimination in the insurance market, yippee! Of course, the entire point of insurance is to discriminate, so you end up with a nonsensical disaster.
- There are a lot more Internet content companies than ISPs, so guess which point of view you are most likely to hear? People's opinions are formed by who they listen to.
- People can't see past themselves, so they don't understand how other people could benefit from a change.
- Some are seeing this as a political issue, and since ending Title II regulation is an initiative done by a Republican, every non-Republican sees it as evil.
- Even though they are wrong on the issue, I'd like to extend credit to many of the Republicans who oppose ending Title II regulation because it proves that Republicans aren't blinded by party. Can't say the same for the other side.
This is an extremely hot-button and highly complicated issue that Ludwig knows many of KoopaTV's standard readers (and any new person coming across this article via a search engine or some other sharing) will disagree with him about. Your comments and corrections are valued and very welcome, and KoopaTV hopes to offer a robust debate. Any corrections will be featured in that month's Review Newsletter, a once-a-month feature that KoopaTV has, and will be awarded points in the KoopaTV Loyalty Rewards Program, which gives away great rewards like Amazon gift card codes. As usual, comments will also be awarded points! This article was made possible by your requests, which normally receive points, but the requester for this was Anonymous. Ludwig is sort-of qualified to write this article because there was a unit in a college class he had dedicated to net neutrality and looking at multiple sides of the issue. This article is also a work-in-progress, since it's really long and on a developing issue.
Ludwig is not a shill of the big ISPs. For example, he has a grudge against Verizon for killing AIM.
Ludwig hates Comcast, because everyone should. They're the worst cable company.
Ludwig thinks AT&T must be up to no good, since they wish to buy Time Warner, which owns FAKE NEWS group CNN.
Ludwig's only mention of net neutrality while it was an issue in 2015 was as a song lyric in a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air parody here.
After Title II regulations were voted to go, plus tax cuts were voted in... the Internet and its companies benefit!
What is the fate of the Internet one year later? Seems the same.