The recent admission by Verizon Wireless that it “throttled” traffic to popular movie-streaming website Netflix comes as no surprise to net neutrality advocates who claim such behavior on Verizon Wireless’s part is just one among many examples of corporate overreach aimed at controlling (or, at least, curtailing) a user’s behavior on rival company websites or on services that tax the infrastructure of the user’s Internet service provider (ISP) (https://www.theverge.com/2017/7/21/16010766/verizon-netflix-throttling-statement-net-neutrality-title-ii). When a user’s Internet usage is “throttled” that means it is intentionally slowed by the provider for a variety of reasons, such as a taxing bandwidth usage, an illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing web mechanism, or even a rival service’s website. Conversely, when an internet user is given preferential access, that is termed a “fast lane.”
Some argue that the ISP provides the capital infrastructure that allows the user to stream Netflix in the first place and thus the Internet service provider should be permitted to control and regulate user access of said infrastructure; however, consumer advocates and net neutrality proponents argue that such control stymies the innovative economic potential of the internet as well as unduly limits the end-user’s rights of use of a product for which they are paying.
What is the concept of net neutrality and how does it play out in terms of economic consequences and legal policy?
One common theme among advocates of net neutrality the world over is that the ISP (and, by extension, the sovereign government) should have minimal power and ability to interfere with the transmission and use of the internet. Another common theme is the ability of the internet to enable new modes of economic being and its transformative effect on economies the world over and how these new modes can threaten or even endanger the ISP as a corporation by either providing a competing, superior service or through undermining its retail operations through piracy and digital theft.
Net neutrality was coined by Columbia University media professor Tim Wu in 2003 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality) and extends the concept of “common carrier” which was applied to telephone systems in the 1980s. It is the principle that all data must be regarded without discrimination by both governments and Internet service providers.
In the above Verizon Wireless case, for example, Verizon Wireless’s throttling of user access to Netflix constitutes a violation of this core principle of net neutrality. Similarly, if Verizon Wireless were to throttle access to an underground file sharing peer-to-peer (P2P) website, that would also violate the fundamental principle of net neutrality.
This is why the concept of net neutrality is fraught with legal and ethical questions that undermine the somewhat idealistic prospects put forward by net neutrality proponents: namely, the ability of users to subvert the law while asking the ISP and sovereign governments to turn a blind eye to such activities.
Aside from the unreasonable nature of such a request, it raises questions about the purpose of an open internet that extend beyond the economic and legal realms and into the ethical and moral. Should an ISP allow access to a human trafficking website, or a website that allows for free use of a rival’s service? If it shouldn’t, to what extent should an ISP monitor its user’s activities and should these regulations be developed on an ad hoc basis or should they be codified by a governmental organization? Wouldn’t such a codification undermine and violate many of the principles for which net neutrality advocates lobby?
The debate is far from over and, indeed, seems to rage on in places such as the United States of America and the European Union. On the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) website alone, over 10 million comments regarding net neutrality were left after the organization’s announcement of a plan to roll back some 2015 pro-net neutrality regulations according to RT News (https://www.rt.com/usa/397233-net-neutrality-fcc-internet/).
Much of Silicon Valley finds itself in the pro-net neutrality camp, arguing that an open and largely unregulated internet allows for the creation of innovative technologies and even new industries. An interesting perspective on the topic comes from Machine Design, which examines a recent FCC filing by United States Internet service provider giant Comcast. Comcast argues that the advent of autonomous technologies such as self-driving vehicles requires the prioritization of data streams to these devices in order for the safe operation of these devices in the public space. Writing in favor of Internet 4.0 and the future direction of the Internet in enabling the “Internet of Things,” Machine Design reiterates the common platform of open source proponents since the 1970’s: Open source leads to faster results and “If we want to live in a connected industrial world, net neutrality needs to survive.” (http://www.machinedesign.com/industrial-automation/internet-things-thrive-net-neutrality-needs-survive)
Machine Design thinks Comcast’s argument is disingenuous in that it asserts autonomous vehicles will need dedicated bandwidth in order to operate. But autonomous vehicles will be operating on a designated frequency different from that of Internet service providers and will be unaffected by bandwidth usage on those services. Machine Design argues that this reserved frequency is a space that ISPs have wanted to gain a toehold in for some time because of the potentially lucrative services that they could offer that would utilize this frequency, or as Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research says in an interview conducted by The Verge and cited by Machine Design, “Wireless carriers have been trying to snatch back that 5.9 GHz spectrum to use it for other purposes that they can make money on, and if that happens, it will be a real problem for automated vehicles.”
This brings the debate to the most pertinent of all questions – that of money. ISPs are in the business to make money off of the infrastructure they build out for their customers, and users want to maximize their utility from said service each month. The fine line between the two is profitability for the company and usage rights for the user which should not be distinguished by what other services that user chooses to channel his internet connection.
In addition to “throttling” a user’s access to sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, ISPs can also provide “privileged access” to companies or users that pay more for such access. This also violates the principles of net neutrality advocated by proponents but helps ameliorate the problem of profitability for the ISP. Allowing privileged access is, in fact, not a new thing according to Wired’s Robert McMillan’s article “What Everyone Gets Wrong in the Debate Over Net Neutrality.”
Robert McMillan argues that such arrangements are not exclusive “fast lanes” of internet access provided out of bias but rather known as “peering connections” and “content delivery servers” which are fundamental to the internet’s operation. He argues that the idea that ISPs do not privilege access is fantastical and a misleading feature of the net neutrality argument. He says that arguing for free and open internet misunderstands how the internet operates (https://www.wired.com/2014/06/net_neutrality_missing/).
Common to both Silicon Valley corporate needs and individual user’s utilization rights is the idea of universally unregulated service, perhaps not equal, but equivocally and totally anonymous and without interference from ISP or government agency. This common ground would make the arguments for net neutrality an extension of the modern debate for the rights of individuals with regard to privacy and choice in the modern era. With so much data readily available at a computer user’s fingertips, it is no wonder that arguments in favor of oversight have some merit with citizens. The use of the Internet and monitoring a user’s access have currency in the anti-terrorism debates in many Western countries. Similarly, those who prefer anonymous and free internet worry about the government using any pretext available to it to spy on its citizens.
Net neutrality’s extension of human rights’ arguments places it on an admirable footing from a philosophical perspective, but it is complicated by the inherent economic question: Do ISPs have a right to charge what they want and do what they will with infrastructure they have built with their own corporate capital?
Just as individuals have rights of access and to anonymity, do ISPs not have the right to maximize the return on their investment and, indeed, enter into exclusive agreements to insure such an outcome?
Publically traded companies such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize shareholder invested value, meaning they have legal obligations to make money off of their investments. Curtailing their ability to do this may dampen their desire to extend networks, build out new technology, or invest in future technology. Ultimately, the arguments for and against net neutrality are a balance of concerns of individual and corporate rights, as well as the limits of the state to interfere with the functioning of the Internet as a service. Unlike public utilities, Internet service providers can give the government reams of personal information on its users that those customers may want to keep private. In the interests of preserving its customer base, ISPs would tend to agree.